PTSD expert speaks about mental state of Ft. Hood shooter - Fox 28: South Bend, Elkhart IN News, Weather, Sports

PTSD expert speaks about mental state of Ft. Hood shooter

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Many of the questions surrounding the shooting at Fort Hood, Wednesday, are connected to the mental state of the shooter, identified as Spc. Ivan Lopez. Fort Hood's commanding officer, Lt. Gen Mark Milley, told reporters Wednesday night that the gunman was being evaluated for post-traumatic stress disorder, but had not been diagnosed.

We spoke with local expert on PTSD and activist for PTSD awareness Dr. Michael Sheehan. For the past 10 years, he has met over 100 veterans, who have served in from World War II to Afghanistan, and has studied their symptoms of PTSD. He says no matter what age, whether 18 or 75, a soldier suffering from PTSD has a life-long struggle with the disorder.

Sheehan says the term PTSD was adopted in 1982, but before that, the common terms used were war neurosis or shell shock. He says for almost 40 years, psychologists and psychiatrists did not know the severity of PTSD. He attributes this to doctors in the past only studying post traumatic stress that only dealt with horrific situations like car accidents. Sheehan says doctors lumped war experiences in with things like car accidents which, Sheehan says, is vastly different.

The main symptoms of PTSD are time distortion, an overwhelming fear, and "a patients gasp for the obvious is not there," explains Dr. Sheehan. He recalls one patient who served in Vietnam, who said every time it rained, he would get a call from "Bobby" not knowing where he was. Sheehan would advise the patient to look out his window, look at the houses, the cars, the street lights, and realize he was back home.

Sheehan says patients have compared PTSD to a light switch. Some light switches have dimmers, where you can control how much light you want to see. Those suffering from PTSD say they don't have a "dimmer." Their emotions and feelings are like a normal light switch: off and on. Sheehan says this is because there has been a break psychologically in the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls memory, decision-making, and emotional reactions.

Bob McCoy is 69 years old. When he was 22, he was in the middle of the largest military campaign of the Vietnam War, the "Tet Offensive". He was guarding a post when bombs started going off... and he caught a glimpse of a little girl, "I said, 'Over here!' and I waved my hands and said over here. She came, and I saw a grenade in her hand. And she was as close as you and I when I shot her. I shot her from the groin up, with 18 rounds."

McCoy remembers looking at his watch as it happened, it was 2:06 AM. Forty years later, nightmares often wake him up at that exact time. "It hurts to talk about," says McCoy.

Sheehan says he underestimated how long PTSD went on. "I like everybody else just thought, 'Well, get over it!'" he says. But Sheehan says PTSD never fully goes away. So he started a support group seven years ago.They meet once a week, and McCoy is always there. "I've got a 98 year old that I work with who still has PTSD from World War II. With the thunder last night, I'm sure he was back at war," says Sheehan.

In Downtown South Bend, there's only a VA Outpatient Clinic Center. The closest hospital for treatment is 2 hours away in Battle Creek, Michigan. Sheehan says, "We don't realize what that does to a human being. It damages them forever. Sheehan says with so many soldiers coming home, PTSD treatment presents a big bill for the government, but he says it's one that's necessary to pay. McCoy says he would never miss his treatment, and he has a message from one soldier to another, "If something doesn't seem right or you feel different... please... get help."

The PTSD support group meets every Wednesday at noon at the Sunnyside Presbyterian Church in South Bend.

Dr. Sheehan currently doesn't lead the sessions after suffering a heart attack in November, but his colleague Neil Gilbert helped start and still continues the support group. He can be reached at 574-287-0391.

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