Understanding PTSD

Dr. Melissa Earle’s Research Provides Insights into Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

March 04, 2013

How is it possible for two people to experience the same traumatic episode and have different reactions to it? Why does the event trigger depression, bouts of rage and substance abuse in one person while the other continues to live a productive, fulfilling life? 


These are the questions that Dr. Melissa Earle, director of Social Work Professional Development and Online Learning, has answered in the course of a career that began as a newly-minted MSW working with Vietnam War veterans and abused children and their parents. 

Those early professional experiences convinced Dr. Earle that she had found her calling - helping individuals suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Later on, her doctoral research focused on the impact of early trauma on paroled men. 

“There’s a correlation between exposure to traumatic events, which can be intense and hard to regulate, and a propensity to addiction,” said Dr. Earle, who earned her doctorate at the Hunter College School of Social Work and her MSW from the State University of New York at Albany. She 

While pursuing research for her doctoral dissertation, Dr. Earle said she visited a substance abuse agency that served parolees. The men were intrigued by her presence, with one parolee asking Dr. Earle, “’Why would someone who looks like you care about some who looks like me?’” 

She responded that she wanted to help and, in order to achieve that goal, spent about an hour asking questions about their trauma and anger. As the interview drew to a close, one parolee told Dr. Earle, “‘The questions you ask are OK but what you really have to figure is that anger - when it snaps - people die,’” recalled Dr. Earle. “He was clearly remorseful about what he had done.” 

While Holocaust survivors experienced incomparable trauma, many were able to move beyond their painful memories and emotional wounds to live healthy, productive lives, said Dr. Earle, because they were part of a larger universe of victims that formed a supportive community. 

“When members of a community have a shared experience and support each other, there’s a power to the fellowship of their healing,” said Dr. Earle. “They don’t have to start over and explain to one another what they have been through, because everyone’s been through it, too, so no one feels alone.” 

Treating PTSD begins with exploring the individual’s trauma history, and then exploring ways to move forward. Oftentimes, getting beyond trauma requires psychological counseling, as well as a physiological approach, such as yoga. 

Earlier this year, Dr. Earle, who teaches an introductory course on trauma that helps professionals working with soldiers, appeared on a range of broadcasts, including NBC Nightly News and Bloomberg News. During the NBC News appearance, Dr. Earle was asked to comment on a recent Journal of American Medical Association study that focused on the high number of veterans who receive prescription painkillers for both physical and psychological pain. 

“Vets suffering from PTSD are now likely to receive the painkillers Oxycotin or Vicodin, and many become addicted to them,” said Dr. Earle. “But, there’s no pill that can cure the symptoms of PTSD.” 

Instead, the antidotes are compassion, counseling and a connection to family and community. 

“Everyone has the capacity to heal after being traumatized,” she said.

From Vision & Values, Winter 2013