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14 June 2010

PTSD research beyond Google - Standing on the shoulders of giants

I'm participating in a traumatic brain injury study being conducted by the VA and the university I attend. I'm in the control group, which includes people who have not suffered a TBI-- my cognitive and memory tests, and MRI results, will be compared against someone in my age group who has a TBI. The people administering the study are very serious about their work, and very serious about learning more about what brain injuries mean for people.

I have also been doing some research on my own, looking up journal articles and study results online through my university's library. Part of the reason I started a blog was that there's not much information available on the web regarding college students with PTSD (civilian or veteran) that a person can actually apply in the classroom. I'm not an expert or a counselor, but I can at least write about how things are for me.

People are doing research, trying to answer questions about what effect PTSD has on people in college. The results of this research never show up in a google search because they're not available to everyone in the world for free. The VA has an excellent resource set up online, the PILOTS database, at http://www.ptsd.va.gov/. PILOTS is a good place to start, but not all of the articles you find are available for free. Google Scholar is another good place to search, but again, not all of the articles you'll find will be available for free.

I can read most of these journal articles and papers because my university has subscribed to them, and provided me with online access to them through the university library. If you are a college student, you probably have access to at least some of these resources, too. Check with your school's library-- librarians love to help show people how to look stuff up. Tell them you're looking for current online research literature on PTSD. (You don't have to explain why, and there's very little chance they'll ask.)

You can also visit other schools libraries-- many large research institutions (and many smaller colleges) offer visitor access to students and faculty from other schools. You should check the library's website for visiting policies, and call ahead to see what credentials you need (my university library requires a valid student or faculty ID).

If you find a particular book or journal that you really want to read, that your library doesn't have, you may be able to obtain a copy through inter-library loan. You can ask your local library to get in touch with the library that has the book, and have it sent to your library for you to check out. Again, ask your local librarian. At my university, I can request books from any library in the state university system.

Many of the acronyms and terms I find in research results I have to look up, or skim past. I'm often not familiar with the specific methods used, the particular cognitive memory test, or how the statistics in the table were generated. I often resort to Wikipedia to get an overview of a concept embedded in a journal article, just so I'm not completely lost. Many times, I just skip ahead to the "Conclusions" section of an article.

I also don't feel comfortable taking all of the results of what I've been reading and assimilating them into a paper and posting it for the world to see (even with proper citations). I'm not trained and educated in psychology and neuroscience, so for me to make statements based only on what I've read in journal articles would be quite reckless.

There are people working on this stuff, trying to figure out why we have to deal with it, and trying to find ways to make it better for us. It helps a great deal knowing that the experts are having as hard a time as we are, trying to explain what repeated exposure to trauma does to a person's brain. I've found studies that agree with each other, and studies that contradict each other.

It is easy, I think, to become frustrated-- the medication you're taking doesn't help, the therapy isn't working, nothing is getting better. There doesn't seem to be a way out. No one will give a definite answer that says "do this, and everything will be fine." There isn't a definite answer, and probably never will be.

So WTF, then? The point of all this talk about research is this: if you know something about what you're dealing with, and know a little of the language from reading the same kinds of articles your doctors and counselors read, you have a better chance of explaining what's going on inside your head. We have something as veterans that has never happened before-- we have access to a lot of the same information that our doctors are reading. We should make the most of the opportunity.

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