June is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Month — a time to shed light on the debilitating mental disorder that affects up to 8 percent of all Americans at some point during their lives. Rates are even higher among those with prior military service, with 11 to 30 percent of veterans suffering from PTSD.
Marine Corps veteran Dexter Egleston, who earned his Master of Social Work degree from the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work in 2017, opens up about his own experience with the disorder and how he’s applying his social work training to help others affected by PTSD.
How long did you serve in the Marine Corps and in what capacity?
I was only 17 when I enlisted, and I served for a total of about 12 years. I was a correctional supervisor for the Marines, as well as a correctional counselor, which is essentially a social work job.
While I was working in the prison, I saw minor offenses like substance use, inmate fighting, assault, battery and domestic violence — and I began to notice a pattern. A lot of prisoners were wrestling with the fallout of war and suffering from the same condition that I was suffering from. We were all trying to figure out different ways to cope with the issues we were facing.
Many of these prisoners were unfamiliar with the symptoms of PTSD, which left them feeling isolated and directionless. Marines who needed help were often just sent to the brig. It became a holding area for those suffering from these disorders.
Can you tell us more about the prevalence of PTSD among Marines and your own experience with the disorder?
PTSD was prevalent among our Marine and Navy personnel. In the military, young people are indoctrinated into a warrior culture. When they’re sent to boot camp and then to war, they are required to do extreme things in order to survive. After that dramatic transition, PTSD shatters a person’s image of themselves, their trust in others and their view of the world in general. The only support system they have is the military. In my years of experience with military personnel both in the Marine Corps and in my second-year MSW internship serving military veterans, PTSD is one of the most prevalent issues I’ve seen.
One of the most common symptoms associated with PTSD is anxiety — specifically, the anxiety of reintegrating into society. Most people associate PTSD with violent or antisocial vets. The general public has no idea what many veterans experience internally. We wear masks to cover up what’s going on inside.
Personally, I didn’t talk very much about my diagnosis on the road to recovery. I left the military on medical retirement because of the disorder and felt as though I had lost my identity for a period of time. I lost some people who were close to me, and that shattered my whole world. I think that learning different techniques for coping with PTSD as a clinician helped me redefine my purpose and my identity.
How can social workers help veterans suffering from PTSD?
Thanks to the rapport-building techniques we learn, social workers can help build support systems for active military personnel within units. Consequently, these individuals will be more apt to communicate with leadership about what’s going on rather than struggling in silence.
Social workers have a broader understanding of human nature than most clinicians do. They focus not only on the cognitive experience, but how that experience is shaped by one’s environment — how individuals influence policy and how policy influences individuals. My hope is that social workers can help shift the cultural dynamic of the military and foster a culture that is better equipped to help those suffering from mental disorders like anxiety and PTSD.
What kinds of mental health services are currently available to veterans?
There are a great number of programs available. The VA has several different support groups, process groups and task-oriented groups. They also offer one-on-one treatment. Before I graduated from the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, I interned at an intensive outpatient substance abuse rehab program at Camp Pendleton.
Camp Pendleton’s eight-week program includes classes on substance abuse, anger management, cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, grief and loss. It incorporates group reflection and individual reprocessing of trauma. After suffering for so long, these training sessions equip veterans with the skills necessary to cope with their trauma. Patients also attend yoga and tai chi classes to develop better bodily control. This component is innovative because, alongside the physical aspect of the practice, the instructors also teach individuals how to process exposure to traumatic incidents.
With my own history of PTSD, interning at Camp Pendleton was fulfilling because I have a deep understanding of patients’ experiences. I felt as though I could help on both the personal and organizational levels to address patients’ needs and develop a supportive culture.
What have you been up to since graduating with your MSW last year?
I no longer pick up a weapon and engage the enemy — now I’m working to ensure the health of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.
When I graduated last spring, I began working with clients one on one but soon realized that the experience was triggering my own flashbacks. I began reconsidering my role and asking myself how I could use my own experiences and expertise to help sufferers.
I began thinking more deeply about policy and the organizational structures that could foster a better framework for understanding, supporting and treating PTSD patients. Last fall, I enrolled at Arizona State in the Doctor of Behavioral Health program to earn my practitioner’s degree and obtain a better systems-level view. I want to use my military history and my own trauma experience to create integrated systems that help clients work through their own personal struggles.
I’m specifically focusing my efforts on the U.S. homeless population, which includes a large number of veterans. I can thank the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work for inspiring my interest in the homelessness sector, as I wanted to align my studies with one of the school’s Grand Challenge initiatives that centers on eradicating homelessness.
My ultimate goal is to hold a leadership role in policy, advocacy or health care administration where I can bring about change and inspire a state of “post-traumatic growth.” While not every patient will end up symptom-free, we can all grow toward a more positive, healthy self.