Students Examine PTSD Effects on Spouses

Karen Anthony and Corny Stark

Highlands University rehabilitation counseling graduate students Karen Anthony, left, and Cortny Stark presented their research at the Annual National Rehabilitation Education Conference in San Francisco. 

Las Vegas, N.M. — Two New Mexico Highlands University rehabilitation counseling graduate students presented their joint research study on how post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, in veterans affects their spouses.

They presented their research at the Annual National Rehabilitation Education Conference in San Francisco April 11 -13.

While there are numerous studies on veterans with PTSD and the professionals who work with them, studying family impact is a new area of research.

Researchers Karen Anthony, 58, and Cortny Stark, 24, are students at the Highlands University Rio Rancho Center. They share a strong common bond: both their husbands are disabled U.S. veterans diagnosed with PTSD.

“Karen and Cortny are pioneers in the field of researching vicarious traumatization of family members of veterans with PTSD — meaning the families love their vet but experience trauma themselves,” said Kathrynn Dziekan, a rehabilitation counseling professor in the School of Education at the Rio Rancho Center who advises Anthony and Stark. “They produced excellent research on a very timely, important topic.”

Dziekan said their rigorous research study generated high interest at the National Rehabilitation Education Conference as well as the New Mexico Counselors Association annual conference. 

“These two students are stellar, exceptional students in every way — from their classroom and clinical work to research and community outreach,” Dziekan said.

For the qualitative element of their research, Anthony and Stark conducted two focus groups with the Albuquerque Partners of Veterans With PTSD Support Group.

For quantitative data, they administered two self-reports to spouses who graduated from the National Veterans Wellness Retreat at Angel Fire, N.M.

“Our major overall finding was that the more severe the PTSD symptoms of the vet, the more vicarious traumatization the spouse experiences and the lower their ability to care for themselves,” Anthony said.

Stark added: “Often military spouses are so focused on the needs of their partner or spouse with PTSD, their own needs aren’t met, and they are emotionally drained.”

Some common symptoms veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder may experience include vivid flashbacks, recurring nightmares, anxiety and stress, anger, survivor’s guilt, and hypervigilance.

“In Afghanistan or Iraq, soldiers need to be hypervigilant 24/7 to stay alive,” Anthony said. “For example, they sit in a circle when they eat, constantly scanning their surroundings for danger. This hypervigilance survival habit doesn’t just go away when you go home. Here in New Mexico, the scenery and adobe buildings look so much like Afghanistan and Iraq, which can trigger hypervigilance and anxiety.

Stark said the media often portrays veterans with PTSD as violent and aggressive, which has not been her experience.

“Because he lived through situations when he didn’t know if he would live or die, my husband has such appreciation for life — whether it’s for us, his family, or a beautiful spring day,” Stark said. “I admire him for that.

 “Our research gives a more informed perspective of what it’s like to live with a veteran with PTSD. We hope it will bring more awareness to how families of veterans with PTSD can be helped through rehabilitation counseling that builds resiliency and coping mechanisms.”

While they are in different stages of life, Anthony and Stark share a passion for rehabilitation counseling.

Anthony earned her B.A. in business and was an accountant for 28 years. She had a lifelong desire to be a counselor and got her chance to return to graduate school when the last of her five children left home. Stark, whose sons are 3 and 4, continued her graduate education after earning her B.A. in criminology in 2010.

Both are on the dean’s list at Highlands and are student leaders. Anthony is the president of the new Rehabilitation and Counseling Club and Stark is the secretary.

They said their rehabilitation counseling professors are knowledgeable and supportive.

“Dr. Dziekan is an experienced researcher herself and was very invested in our success as researchers,” Anthony said. “Dr. Patricia Woodard was also very supportive with our statistical analysis.”