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Chris Frueh and Operator Syndrome book cover

A psychology professor at University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo unveils the hidden burdens shouldered by military special operators and their loved ones in his groundbreaking new book, Operator Syndrome. Through decades of research, Chris Frueh, has delved into the complex web of impacts on military heroes such as traumatic brain injury, sleep apnea, depression and addiction.

“For too long, the VA (Veterans Affairs) and DOD (Department of Defense) have relied on the ‘easy button’’ of a PTSD diagnosis,” said Frueh. “In my work with military special operations, it seems that Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets, Marine Raiders, Air Force Pararescuemen, etc., typically do not have PTSD; but instead have a far more complex set of interrelated health, psychological, and interpersonal difficulties that are common downstream outcomes of their careers.”

army helmet

Frueh’s findings, which have garnered national attention, have put a spotlight on the mental healthcare field that has largely overlooked the significance of hormones, chronic pain, brain injuries and quality sleep in relation to conditions commonly diagnosed and treated as psychiatric disorders.

He hopes the book, which was recently published in March, will provide a roadmap to understand multifaceted origins and complex effects on every biological system in the body. Frueh also aims to shed light on the effects on social systems such as family and work.

“I see lightbulb moments in the room, which is usually followed by an intense sigh of relief,” said Frueh about veterans hearing his findings. “So many of them have been told over and over again that there is nothing wrong with them—that their MRI was normal or their t-levels were normal (according to the branch’s standards) and that it must be PTSD or some other mental health ‘issue.’”

Firefighter Syndrome

Related story: Firefighter Syndrome: Addressing long-term psychological, physical risks, August 29, 2023

Frueh’s work also covers the health of first responders, notably firefighters with what his team of researchers have identified as Firefighter Syndrome. Research has identified that first responders cope with similar psychological and physical impacts as military veterans. However Frueh’s team identified that the amount of research on firefighter health and wellness is significantly smaller when compared with veterans.

For more go to UH Hilo Stories.

—By Susan Enright

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