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updated: 7/4/2014 9:52 AM

Experts warn fireworks may trigger PTSD episodes in veterans

Why some veterans dread the 4th of July

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  • Mental health experts and veterans advocacy officials remind residents living near veterans that fireworks displays may trigger post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms in neighboring combat veterans.

    Mental health experts and veterans advocacy officials remind residents living near veterans that fireworks displays may trigger post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms in neighboring combat veterans.
    Daily Herald File Photo/July 2002


For many Independence Day revelers, the fireworks display is the thing they are looking forward to most.

For many suburban combat veterans, it's the thing they dread the most.

Mental health experts and veterans advocacy officials urge restraint and respect by those living near veterans afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The loud explosions and intermittent flashes could trigger the anxiety and stress symptomatic of the disorder that is increasingly common among veterans of all wars and military engagements.

"When it comes to Fourth of July, the one thing everyone's got going for them is they know when the fireworks are going to happen and they can be prepared for it," said Amanda Feiner, an Arlington Heights therapist who specializes in treating PTSD. "What's worse for these veterans are the days before or after and the unexpected booms."

Toni, a Lake County mom whose son suffers from PTSD after being injured by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan while serving in the Marines and who asked not to be specifically identified, said the fewer chances there are to trigger the disorder, the better.

"We live on a lake, so they set off fireworks for everything," she said. "It's been so far, so good, but I know the potential is there."

Some veterans have gone so far as to post signs in front of their homes that read, "Combat Veteran Lives Here. Please Be Courteous with Fireworks."

Mental health experts said the increasing de-stigmatization of PTSD allows veterans and other sufferers to take these types of precautions that other mental health afflictions aren't afforded.

"People in general are much more respectful of returning veterans than any other time in the past," said Angela Adkins, executive director of the DuPage County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. "Certainly in the last 10 years there's been a better understanding of the disorder."

Steve Ruohomaki, clinical supervisor at Lake-McHenry Veterans and Family Services, said this type of public acknowledgment helps not only the person suffering from PTSD but the whole community.

"I want to congratulate that person for having the courage to make a public statement about it. It certainly contributes to the public awareness," he said.

Experts said PTSD sufferers should take precautions themselves to try to block fireworks displays, too. They recommend staying indoors, closing blinds and turning up music or television to drown the fireworks' blasts and eliminate the sparkling flashes.

"What's so important is that the person has to acknowledge, recognize and honor themselves by taking care of themselves if they're aware of what triggers them," said Susie Piasecki, a PTSD sufferer who volunteers with area mental health awareness groups and regularly does public speaking engagements to help reduce the stigma of mental illnesses. "But it's just as important for others to be aware. People may not even be aware they are disrespecting and dishonoring veterans with the fireworks thing. It's really ignorance in its most innocent form."

Piasecki said there's only so much someone living with PTSD can control in their environment, and even if they can expect neighbors to shoot off fireworks in the days leading up to and following the holiday, they can't control their reactions to being startled by the noise.

"You think you're still living in that hell," Piasecki said. "That's your reality. You're living in that state of terror."

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