The most recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs estimate that post-traumatic stress disorder afflicts almost 30 percent of Vietnam veterans, 10 percent of Gulf War veterans, and 11 percent of veterans from Afghanistan. Melissa Skolnick, a graduate student in the higher education program, feels the need to make a difference.
Skolnick is in charge of planning events for Disability Awareness Month in April.
“I am also very passionate about sexual violence on the college campus, and I also actually deal with PTSD, so for me that is where they intersected,” Skolnick said.
Skolnick said many of those dealing with PTSD face discrimination. Mental illness is still often perceived as a weakness, despite centuries of learning and the “Decade of the Brain.”
“There is an extra round of stigma that comes with invisible disabilities, and oftentimes what sort of trauma leads to those disabilities,” says Skolnick.
Skolnick got in contact with the UM veterans and military services office, where she teamed up with Aaron Rutkowski, president of Student Veterans of America at Ole Miss.
Skolnick was inspired by a project in Indiana, where a Veterans Affairs hospital helped veterans struggling with PTSD using art therapy.
“And there is a lot of literature around how helpful that can be for expressing— and sometimes used as part of cognitive behavioral therapy— and exposure and bringing up those memories and learning how to reframe them,” Skolnick said.
They had different participants create original paintings and drawings to be placed on a wall and presented as one piece of art.
“So that’s the goal of these healing events, is to have multiple of these leading up to April, so when we have our big week around PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, major depressive disorder, anxiety, that we can have this big reception at the end and we will reveal this art wall,” says Skolnick.
There will be a day devoted to explaining and raising awareness around the differences between a service dog, a comfort animal, and a therapy dog, called “My Dog is not for Petting.” Puppies will be brought in for petting to teach people how to ask permission before petting a service dog and respecting when a handler says “no.”
Dalny Ruel, a graduate student and a friend of Skolnick, said this program was a great way to address these issues. Ruel found out about the event from social media and decided to come and support the cause.
“I saw it on Facebook, and I know that (Skolnick) is spearheading the event, when I saw that it was an event to recognize the different either post-traumatic stress disorder, or like brain injuries, like invisible diseases, I thought that this would be a really great way to support,” Ruel said.
Taylor Stephens, psychology major, dreams of becoming a counselor to victims of PTSD .
“I have experienced traumatic events myself, so I like to come to events like this and connect with people,” Stephens said. “I feel when you meet someone who has gone through something that you have gone through, you feel it, you connect, it’s a really special thing. I think it’s important for growth.”