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Army nurse leads new research into PTSD

A new study into the intimate relationships of Australian Army personnel sent to war zones will reveal the triggers most likely to cause marital breakdown and help to prepare couples for the unique challenges of deployment.

Brisbane nurse and Queensland University of Technology paramedic science academic, Kerri-Ann Welch, will present preliminary findings of her study on how deployment affects relationships at the PTS17 Forum, to be held this week.

Taking place in Brisbane on September 8 and 9, the forum will bring together national and international health workers, researchers, veterans and emergency responders to present, discuss and share the latest findings on diagnosis, treatments and prevention for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The forum, held by StandTall4PTS and sponsored by RSL Queensland, is an opportunity for healthcare professionals to hear from some of the world’s leading experts in this field, equipping them to provide specialised help to some of their most vulnerable patients.

Kerri-Ann Welch. Photo: supplied.

For Welch, 37, the forum has both professional and personal meaning.

“I will be presenting findings of my longitudinal study but I’ll also be speaking on my personal experiences as a carer for my husband who has PTSD,” Welch said.

“He served in the Army for 15 years and was deployed to Afghanistan.

“He remained in the ADF for 6 years post-deployment, and they were some of the most difficult times for him and for our family. We were, and remain, totally committed to each other, but there were many dark, dark days in those years.

“He was medically discharged late 2016, and we have been adjusting to our new life post-Army.”

Welch also served in the Army as a nursing officer from 2007-2012 and remains an Army reservist.

“I was also attached to the non-deployed element of 6RAR. Four soldiers were killed in the time that I was in that unit and so I saw the guys as they came back home and many were not well,” she said.

Welch said the transition from service to civilian life was the hardest challenge for veterans and their families.

“That process is really difficult to start with and guys with PTSD are having to do it at a time when they are really not well,” she said.

“There’s a lot of information to take in and a lot of change to absorb and many of those people leaving the service have either never lived a civilian life – they went into service very young – or it’s been a long time and the civilian world has changed dramatically from what they knew.”

Welch said dealing with the Department of Veteran Affairs was often overwhelming and stressful and many veterans were unsure where to seek support or assistance.

“Medical claims and other things can also take a long time to process and they often feel like they’re out of the loop which heightens their stress levels,” she said.

“Couples who are already struggling with their post-Defence life can see this added uncertainty really start to tear at the fabric of their relationships.”

Welch’s study of 19 couples revealed factors that both helped and hindered relationships during and after deployment.

“The Australian Defence Force (ADF) is an insular sub-culture defined by mateship, hierarchy, unquestioning loyalty and strict discipline,” Welch said.

“This workplace culture can make intimate relationships difficult for military members and their partners and characterises an environment different from mainstream culture.

“When deployment is added to the mix, this may result in a volatile combination of experiences that strain partnerships in ways not usually explored by traditional relationship health analyses.”

Welch said people who made a solid plan for after deployment tended to have more resilient relationships.

“For instance, those who decide they will buy that dream house or go on a cruise and it’s booked and they know the date they’re sailing and it’s a really solid plan tend to fare better with deployment,” she said.

“Support structures for the person who is not deployed have also emerged as very important.

“Those with a strong network of a mix of people seem to do best – some friends who have no experience or understanding of military life and some who are in a comparable situation.”

Welch said the results of the study would be used to better prepare ADF members and their partners for deployment while also educating ADF commanders of likely relationship impacts of deployment.

This will be the second PTS17 Forum to be staged and will focus on both veterans and first responders including emergency health workers.

Research has found more than one in 10 Australians will suffer from PTSD during their lifetime1.

More information on the PTS17 Forum can be found here.

Sally Hodder is a media and public relations liaison for StandTall4PTS.

StandTall4PTS is a not-for-profit organisation established by Tony Dell, a Vietnam veteran who was diagnosed with post traumatic stress 40 years after returning home. Stand Tall works to raise awareness of PTS in the community and reduce the stigma so often associated with it. PTSD15 and the upcoming PTS17 continues Stand Talls’ commitment to “ Seeking Solutions Together”.

1 Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2008. National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of results, 2007.

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