The Invictus Games has highlighted the plight of veterans who are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But how does it impact their families and children?
Veteran and co-founder of Soldier On, John Bale, said while the veteran community had become much more open about PTSD, families were still suffering from associated anxiety and depression in silence.
“That can have dramatic impacts on both that family unit, but also intergenerationally with the kids of that family, and their kids et cetera,” Mr Bale said.
He has had personal experience with this.
Mr Bale’s grandfather served, and his father is a Vietnam veteran who fought at one of the worst battles — the Battle of Coral.
“He didn’t talk about that with me. Not really until the last couple of years did he say he had PTSD from that incident,” Mr Bale said.
“As a family we knew it occurred, but at the end of the day we didn’t talk about it as a family.”
He believes his father’s PTSD has, in part, been passed down to him.
“I think it’s unrealistic to say no,” Mr Bale said.
“I’ve worked through some of the ways I deal with highly stressful situations, where sometimes I’m quick to anger in certain instances.
“When I sit somewhere, I have good vision across everywhere I can see.
“That’s part of that — not hyper-vigilance that my father has passed down — but what I saw him do in sitting in the back of a bus and seeing where the exits are and that sort of thing.
“I had to work through that in an emotional element.
“Now with children of my own and understanding the interactions I am having, I am having to re-learn some of those skills.”
Experience changes DNA
The Department of Veterans Affairs provides some information and guidance about intergenerational trauma for veterans and their families.
It refers to an Australian Institute of Health and Welfare study from almost 20 years ago, which found adult children of Vietnam veterans had a higher suicide rate than other Australians.
Emerging research suggests this link might be more than the result of environmental factors and nurture, and could be passed down via what’s called epigenetics.
This is where environmental factors change the way the DNA behaves in the parent (father and mother), and that is passed down to the child.
“As well as transmitting the DNA sequence in genes from the parents, we think now — and this is pretty new research — that the experience of the mother and the father can be transmitted via what we call epigenetics to the offspring,” Anthony Hannan, the head of epigenetics at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, said.
“And that can contribute to either the susceptibility or vulnerability to particular brain disorders, including PTSD.”
His group at the institute recently published evidence from laboratory mice showing PTSD is transferred through the male sperm.
“If in the male mice they had increased stress hormone before conception, before they bred with the female mice, then the offspring had altered aspects of their behaviour, which are highly relevant to depression, anxiety disorders and in fact PTSD,” Professor Hannan said.
“In terms of evidence in humans, this is gradually accumulating.”
But Professor Hannan said it was an area that needed far more research.
Part of the challenge is distinguishing whether the transmission of trauma is from environmental exposure or genetics, or a combination of both.
That is why Melbourne University’s Richard Saffery, who studies developmental genetics, said it was a controversial and complicated area.
“Up until recently we thought only DNA was important as a vehicle for carrying information from one generation to the next,” Professor Saffery said.
“But we now know that sperm and eggs can carry memories of environmental exposures.
“So theoretically it is possible, it’s just that we don’t have what I would call convincing evidence for PTSD and similar stresses.
“It is fair to say that there is evidence it is transmitted across generations, but how much of that is pre-natal versus post-natal — which is the nurture — is difficult to disentangle.”
How veterans are dealing with their PTSD
Veteran Chris Edwards served in Bougainville in the 1990s, and said his PTSD was a combination of trauma experienced there, as well as having an alcoholic father.
“When you grow up around a person who is emotionally withdrawn and anxious, that makes kids anxious,” Mr Edwards said.
“I think the new generation of Afghanistan vets, who have faced a totally different theatre of war, are really high strung.
“I know some of them who have really young kids and they just can’t be emotionally present, they shut down for days,” he said.
Veteran Chris Rhyss Edwards developed a wearable device which uses biometric data to track veterans’ moods and stress levels. (ABC News: Katherine Gregory)
Mr Edwards only discovered he had PTSD several years ago and he hit rock bottom soon after.
“Two years ago I tried to kill myself after my marriage blew up,” Mr Edwards said.
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“I was interrupted by an SMS … It was just a mate.
“He had seen I wasn’t on social media for a few days so he reached to say are you OK? So the beep saved my life.”
He said it inspired him to develop a wearable device, which uses biometric data to track veterans’ moods and stress levels.
“If it’s a low level of stress, it takes you through a breathing exercise, if it’s a moderate level of stress, it takes you through a guided meditation,” he said.
“We can automatically connect you with a local ex-service organisation in your immediate grid square, or we can connect you to your veteran mates in real time.”
Mr Edwards said the device was currently being tested with Defence.
He said he hoped that by breaking down the isolation and stigma that came with PTSD, transmission between generations could be interrupted too.