Climbing 4 PTSD: Air Force Veteran and friend determined to get better treatments for PTSD

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Allen Zeitlin
Allen Zeitlin

Allen Zeitlin is a third year med student at Michigan State University in Grand Rapids, with interests in psychiatry and neurology. This has a lot to do with the time he spent in the Middle East, serving in the military. “I remember when I joined the Air Force,” Allen recalls, “it was before 9/11. I was 18 years old and naive and thought, ‘We’re at this time of unheralded peace in American history. And then everything changed─suddenly we were in 2 wars.

"I feel very lucky that I was able to walk away from this military experience unscathed,” says Allen, who was in the Middle East in the early 2000s. He didn’t see a lot of combat because his job was to repair aircrafts. “We worked on cargo planes to bring the troops to the front lines,” he explains. “I remember seeing the wounded soldiers, and it made quite an impression on me at the time.”

When Allen’s military duty ended and he returned to the States and to college, he faced an intense transition back into civilian life. While he didn’t actually suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he found returning from the pressures and responsibilities of military life to a more carefree student life to be a very daunting transition. At school he had the opportunity to meet other veterans his age, and joined a group called Student Veterans of America (SVA). It was there he started to hear more stories from vets that returned from the military with PTSD.

“One of the troubles with PTSD and military members is that you have to have this image of toughness ─ so then how do you deal with PTSD?"

Allen realized that the stigma of mental illness in the military prevented people from disclosing until after they returned home. “It just wasn’t talked about,” says Allen. “One of the troubles with PTSD and military members is that you have to have this image of toughness ─ so then how do you deal with PTSD? How do you go tell your sergeant or captain you’re having trouble coping?”

When Allen became involved in rock climbing in his home state of Michigan, he met Charles Hamel who would become his climbing partner and ultimately his partner in this PTSD crusade. Inspired and driven to do their part in helping to get better treatments for PTSD, they decided to create a rock climbing charity event called “Climbing 4 PTSD”. The SVA pointed them in the direction of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation so that 100% of the money raised will go to Foundation-funded research.

This December, Allen and Charles will travel to Mexico to free-climb North America’s second longest sport route. At 2,300 feet, this vertical climb will take approximately 10-12 hours. “There should be some ledges to rest in between, but we are really pushing ourselves to the limits of our ability,” he says. “We thought that doing something this challenging might help to inspire other people.”

Allen hopes that their donation will help find better treatments with fewer side effects through NARSAD Grant-funded research. “I think one of the things with PTSD, is that in a certain sense the trauma becomes an event that takes away your life.” Allen says, “Medication has certainly helped many people, but at the same time some clinicians brush off side effects [like sexual side effects or weight gain], but these can be a big deal in a person’s life."

Allen and Charles look forward to their rigorous endeavor in a few weeks: “The thing that made me and Charles want to raise money for PTSD is the invisible scars of combat. After returning from the military,” Allen says, “I felt I walked away from it all so extremely lucky. I feel I owe a debt to those suffering [from PTSD].  And I hope our effort might help to inspire others to take action too.”

Article comments

Dear Allen & Charles, I think what you are doing is wonderful. I do suffer from PTSD from sexual abuse and since 9/11 have been very concerned about PTSD in soldiers returning from war. Thank you so very much for bringing PTSD in soldiers into the light. I believe that people with a mental illness are still stigmatized. A war against this stigmatization needs to be waged. I believe these invisible scars of combat especially needs to be addressed because of the sheer number of men and women affected by it. Thank you for thinking big and for your past and future climbs. I try to do my part by talking to undergraduate and graduate students about mental illness and by trying to humanize it and smash some myths. It is something very small. I am very happy about both of your big eforts to do the same thing. Thank you again - and may you both go on many climbs and may they be safe.

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Please note that researchers cannot give specific recommendations or advice about treatment; diagnosis and treatment are complex and highly individualized processes that require comprehensive face-to- face assessment. Please visit our "Ask an Expert" section to see a list of Q & A with NARSAD Grantees.
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