Understanding Veteran Survivor’s Guilt: Symptoms & Treatment

This week we covered the story of Brian Sullivan, an Afghanistan War veteran who struggled with post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) following his return from combat. A member of the Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal Unit, Sullivan was often under extreme stress and more than once saw the devastating effects of the bombs that he found and disarmed. When he returned to his family in the United States, he realized that he was suffering from survivor's guilt - paralyzing thoughts that he should have died instead of others.

What is survivor guilt?

Also known as survivor's guilt or survivor syndrome, survivor guilt syndrome is a mental condition associated with PTSD. Survivor's guilt is common among those who have lived through a traumatic event in which others died, such as military personnel who have experienced war or battle. Experts believe that thousands of veterans returning from war in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from survivor's guilt.

First researched in the 1960s, survivor syndrome used to be seen as a separate mental illness from PTSD; the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists survivor's guilt as a symptom of PTSD.

How is survivor's guilt treated?

Those suffering from survivor's guilt may feel like their colleagues or friends should have escaped the trauma instead of them. These feelings are often accompanied by depression, feelings of loneliness, self-blame, and thoughts of worthlessness.

Survivor's guilt is often treated with therapy that focuses on analyzing the past traumatic events and realizing that the survivor was not the cause of the trauma - and that the survivor should not feel responsible for representing those who lost their lives.

Survivor's guilt can be extremely debilitating. If you are a veteran suffering from these feelings or other symptoms of PTSD, speak to a counselor or other medical professional immediately. If you have been diagnosed with PTSD and are seeking disability benefits, we invite you to speak with one of our VA disability benefits lawyers about your case.

Carl M. Weisbrod
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Managing Partner of Morgan & Weisbrod, Board Certified in Social Security Disability Law