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Family mourns son's death, says PTSD help was available

By ELISA SAND | American News, Aberdeen, S.D. (Tribune News Service) | Published: April 29, 2015

Life turned on a dime two years ago for Paul and Karen Larson of Custer, S.D., when their son, Ben, returned from his deployment and began struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The former Aberdeen family recently lost their son, Ben. He was only 33 years old. A graduate of Roncalli High School, Ben Larson was accepted to West Point and served time in the military. He also had close friends who served in the military. He lost some overseas.

Two died after they returned home.

“They were the ones he’d talk to in the middle of the night for hours,” Paul Larson said.

Ben’s friends were deployed to Afghanistan. Ben Larson was later deployed to Iraq, returning in mid-2012.

Larson said his son didn’t show signs of PTSD immediately. He was accepted to the School of Law at Creighton University, but after one semester he dropped out. Then he also started drinking and pushing people away.

“He had people who wanted to help him, but for whatever reason he wanted to take care of it on his own,” Larson said.

Alcohol was his son’s way of treating the problem, he said.

Ben Larson died at Rapid City Regional Hospital on April 10.

Larson said his son was diagnosed with PTSD, and also had survivor’s guilt and depression. The Veterans Administration was there to help, and evaluated him for an inpatient treatment program in Hot Springs.

Ben Larson was scheduled to go, but he wouldn’t return calls from the VA, his dad said.

“He just kind of shut everybody out,” Larson said.

Dr. Robin Carter-Visscher, a clinical psychologist for the VA in Sioux Falls, said 10 percent to 15 percent of combat veterans who have served one tour of active duty will be diagnosed with PTSD and the likelihood of developing PTSD increases with subsequent deployments.

Carter-Visscher, a PTSD and substance use disorder specialist for the VA, said it’s very important for veterans to get an accurate diagnosis of what’s happening and the appropriate treatment.

“If you’ve had the symptoms for a year and they’ve not naturally improved, you will have it for the rest of your life without proper treatment,” she said.

Carter-Visscher said treatments available today can help with veterans returning from recent deployments, but also older veterans who served in World War II, the Korean War or in Vietnam. When they served, she said, the VA didn’t have the same information available for identification and treatment of PTSD.

“If they haven’t gotten help, it can still be effective,” she said. “A lot of folks in general, and men, hear the message that they need to be strong and handle the situation and asking for help makes them feel weak.”

In reality, she said, it’s a sign of strength to ask for help.

Treatment is also more involved, with discussion about the trauma, learning coping mechanisms and revisiting the trauma itself.

“It’s very specific and difficult work to do,” she said. “We’re asking them to do everything in therapy that their brain is telling them not to do. In a trauma, our brain learns in a very impactful way. With PTSD, some of those things our brain keys in as dangerous get generalized.”

Take for instance the sound of mortar shells. At first, she said, a similar noise like fireworks, could trigger a reaction, but the trigger may later become generalized to the point where loud voices or crowded rooms become the trigger.

Larson said his son is remembered as an honest guy with an upbeat personality who was a friend to everyone.

“These last two years ... that wasn’t Ben,” he said.

Now, Larson said, he just wonders if he could have done more.

Carter-Visscher said family members can reach out with concern and even get permission to make that first phone call or attend the first appointment.

“Sometimes, it’s easier to have family members explain what they’ve observed,” she said.

Carter-Visscher said PTSD research is still an evolving field and it’s unknown why two people can experience the same event and one ends up with PTSD, but having it shouldn’t be any reflection on the person.

“It doesn’t say anything about you,”Carter-Visscher said. “It says something about the amount of trauma you’ve experienced. It’s not that you are weak or that you did anything wrong. If you’re struggling, let’s get help for you.”

In addition to PTSD, Carter-Visscher said there’s also cases of threshold PTSD, which could be signs of depression or other internal struggles.

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©2015 the American News (Aberdeen, S.D.)
Visit the American News (Aberdeen, S.D.) at www.aberdeennews.com
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