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Exclusive Interview: Miss USA Using Platform to Speak About Military Suicide, PTSD

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Miss USA 2016Active duty soldiers at risk for suicide and veterans coming home from war with PTSD have a new ally: Miss USA Deshauna Barber.

And if she happens to wins Miss Universe, she’ll be advocating for them on a global stage.

Barber serves as a commander in the Army Reserves, making her the first soldier ever crowned Miss USA. She is the daughter of a retired Army Master Sergeant who served in the Special Forces. A so-called “Army brat” who has spent a lifetime being schooled in the sacrifices of American service to country, she has lived in North Carolina, Nebraska, Minnesota, Virginia and now, Washington, D.C.

Not since J.R. Martinez, a Marine who lost part of his face in a roadside bomb explosion and went on to star in the soap opera All My Children, has the military had such a high-profile advocate for PTSD and related mental health issues. And while some veterans have expressed skepticism about how effective Barber will be in making a difference, she said many more are cheering her on.

In an exclusive interview with Rehab International, Barber said her goal is to not only destigmatize PTSD in the military, but to normalize it. “My goal is to make soldiers feel less ashamed of it, and for people in general to understand this is a reaction to trauma, a mental battle. You should never be ashamed of asking for help.”

PTSD and suicide are growing problems in the military. A recent study published in Annals of Internal Medicine shows that suicides in the military almost doubled between 2001 and 2011.1 Suicide attempts also have increased during the past 10 years, according to a study published in JAMA Psychiatry.2 Of 163,178 soldiers in the latter study, 9,650 attempted suicide. Most of them were men, and 60 percent never had been deployed. However, when looking at suicides among those who had been deployed, most were women.

suicides-in-military-doubled-from-2001-to-2011

PTSD and suicide in the military among women receive little attention compared to men, even though women are now allowed to have combat roles as well. Could a female soldier with a prominent platform as Miss USA finally help bring these issues into the spotlight?

“We’re taught to be strong in the military, and I’ve seen numerous soldiers try to fight these internal battles by themselves,” Barber told the Fayetteville Observer.3 She said she doesn’t want her best friend to come back from Afghanistan to do that if she ends up needing help. “I want to make sure that when she gets back, she has all the resources she needs.”

Ironically, Barber said it was a woman — a Marine — who reached out to her and scolded her for making PTSD a platform in a beauty pageant. “She wrote a long blog about me, saying I had no right to advocate for people with PTSD. It was very absurd,” Barber told Rehab International. “She very much disapproved of me using my Miss USA title for this. She was against everything, because I never have been deployed, she said I had no right to advocate. You don’t need certain qualifications to advocate for anything. You’re taking your free time for this.”

 

Self-Medicating Leads to Alcoholism, Addiction

Combat soldiers who return with PTSD often have a co-occurring condition called moral injury, which is distress that comes from engaging in actions that go against their own values, such as taking another person’s life.

Female soldiers with PTSD often report that harassment or sexual trauma compound other more commonly known PTSD triggers that come from being deployed to a war zone. In many cases of PTSD, it’s common to self-medicate symptoms of anxiety and depression with drugs and alcohol. In these cases, it’s important that both the addiction and the mental health issues are treated concurrently.

Barber said the problem of PTSD in the military and suicide that often results from it are two-fold. “Obviously, in general, everyone wants to be strong, be tough, push through everything, especially in the military,” she told Rehab International. “You don’t want to ever feel weak; that’s the mindset. But they are having bad dreams, suffering, yet most soldiers opt out of getting help because they don’t want to feel ashamed or weak in front of their comrades.”

The VA could do a better job of helping veterans too, Barber said. Once her Miss USA reign is over, she plans to take her advocacy straight to Capitol Hill. Don’t expect her to be just spitting out soundbites during a PSA here and there. She is well-schooled on the problem of PTSD, extremely confident and intelligent, and likely will be firm and effective when talking to legislators about the VA’s inadequacies.

“I’m bringing awareness to this issue,” Barber said in an interview with Afro.com.4 “I’m pushing families and friends that have soldiers returning from deployment to make sure that they pay attention to the soldier, that they recognize certain signs that the soldier may be suffering from PTSD that the soldier might be having an issue acclimating themselves back into state side activities.”

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs,5 signs of PTSD “last longer than three months, cause you great distress and disrupt your work or home life.” Some examples include:

  • Nightmares
  • Flashbacks
  • Triggers, such as reacting when seeing news reports, seeing an accident or hearing a car backfire
  • Avoiding crowds because of unsafe feelings
  • Staying overly busy to avoid seeking help and talking about the disturbing event
  • Avoiding others due to general distrust
  • Insomnia
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Being easily startled
  • Wanting to have your back against a wall in a restaurant or waiting room

2016-miss-usa-veteranBarber Intends to Affirm Those Who Need Help

While most people have responded to Barber’s work with encouragement, others have expressed cynicism. For example, some of the comments posted on an Army Times story wondered if her cause is misguided and if she is the best person to address these issues.6

“But for the most part I have been very well received, and I have been surprised by that,” Barber told Rehab International. “I didn’t know when I won Miss USA how my unit would look at me — if they would just think I was a girly-girl. In fact, they have been very, very open to what I’m doing, and very positive.”

Up next for Barber? Nothing less than the Miss Universe pageant in Manila, Philippines.

In the meantime, she’s spreading the word about a free smartphone app established by the military called Battle Buddy. Whether you’re a member of the service or simply the friend or loved one of a service member, Battle Buddy is an easy-to-navigate tool with a simple aim: keeping people living with PTSD and those around them safe. It includes talking points, resources to national and local resources, including VA psychologists and other local psychologists, hotline numbers, legal assistance, and much more.

Regardless of any challenges she may face along the way, Barber intends to use her crown to address what clearly has become a national crisis: suicide in the military. “I have lost a soldier to PTSD, to suicide, so I have been directly affected by it,” she said in an interview with People Magazine.7 “Right now 22 veterans commit suicide each day, and that is a catastrophic number that needs to make it to zero, so I look forward to bringing awareness to that.”


Sources

1. Anglemyer, A. et al. (2016, June 7). Suicide Rates and Methods in Active Duty Military Personnel 2005-2011, a Cohort Study. Annals of Internal Medicine. Retrieved July 17, 2016, from http://annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=2526945
2. Ursano, R.J. et al. (2016, July). Risk Factors, Method, and Timing of Suicide Attempts Among U.S. Army Soldiers. JAMA Psychiatry. Retrieved July 17, 2016, from http://archpsyc.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=2524845
3. Carbo, B. (2016, June 9). Miss USA recalls fond memories in Fayetteville, shares thrill and responsibility with new crown. Fayetteville Observer. Retrieved July 17, 2016, from http://www.fayobserver.com/military/miss-usa-recalls-fond-memories-in-fayetteville-shares-thrill-and/article_25a29b80-e6e0-56fd-b459-883b1ccdb12b.html
4. Antoine, L. (2016, June 22). Miss USA advocates service to country. Afro. Retrieved July 17, 2016, from http://www.afro.com/miss-usa-advocates-service-to-country/
5. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Symptoms of PTSD. Retrieved July 17, 2016, from http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/PTSD-overview/basics/symptoms_of_ptsd.asp
6. Army Times Facebook page. (2016, June 6). Miss USA to fight for vets, tackle military suicide, PTSD. Retrieved July 17, 2016, from https://www.facebook.com/armytimes/posts/10154341281339497
7. Glya, G. (2016, June 7). Miss USA 2016 Deshauna Barber Feels Just as Confident in an Army Uniform as a Ball Gown: ‘They Both Have Their Perks!’ People. Retrieved July 17, 2016, from http://www.people.com/article/miss-usa-deshauna-barber-interview

Written by David Heitz

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