U student to study in Australia on Fulbright scholarship

By Rochelle McConkie

When Lynnette Averill was 3 years old, her father, a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War, took his life because of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Now as a doctorate student in counseling psychology at the U, Averill will take her research on PTSD in military veterans to Australia on a $30,000 Fulbright Scholarship to consider the relationship between the disorder and substance use. Averill has devoted her academic career to this research.

“Ultimately, I grew up wondering what the psychological impact of war was and what I could do to make the symptoms after the experience as manageable as possible,” Averill said. “I wanted to be a miracle worker so little girls wouldn’t have to grow up without their fathers.”

In August, Averill will begin to study the relationship between PTSD and alcohol use at the Australian Centre of Posttraumatic Mental Health at the University of Melbourne, known for its research on military trauma.

Averill is one of 13 Americans studying in Australia on the prestigious Fulbright postgraduate scholarship.

The facility already has statistics from more than 4,000 Australian veterans, Averill said, and she has often studied and cited work from the center while doing her own research.

“They’re my research idols,” she said.

Because of the high level of soldiers returning from Iraq with symptoms of PTSD, Averill said her research is relevant now more than ever. According to recent estimates, at least 17 percent of Iraq veterans are expected to develop PTSD, generalized anxiety disorder or depression.

PTSD is a psychiatric condition that often causes individuals to re-experience trauma, suppress thinking or talking about the trauma and experience hypervigilance.

About 80 percent of veterans with PTSD also have problems with alcohol abuse or dependence, according to a U.S. National Center for PTSD report.

Averill said she is also interested in looking at the impact of PTSD and alcohol use on the homeless.

“Iraq veterans are one of the fastest growing populations of homeless in the country, which studies say is a lot due to PTSD, substance use, traumatic brain injury or both,” she said.

For the past four years, Averill has been doing research and working with veterans at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City.

Steven Allen, a coordinator and clinical psychologist at the VA, said Averill has been doing dialectic behavioral therapy, designed to help veterans moderate their behavior away from extremes. Averill has also worked with veterans to talk about their experiences.

“A big part of PTSD is avoidance,” Allen said. “Being able to talk about what’s happened gives people control.”

Allen said Averill’s research is important because of the large number of people who have readjustment issues following military service. Substance abuse is a continual problem for people in these situations, he said.

He said he hopes to continue to work with Averill when she returns from Australia in a year. She plans to come back to the U to finish her doctoral degree.

“She’s been delightful to work with-very responsible and a hard worker,” Allen said. “She’s strongly motivated to working with veterans.”

Averill has received a number of other honors at the U, including the Steffensen Cannon Scholarship for the past two years and the Founders Day Scholarship from the Alumni Association in 2008. She serves as the vice chair of the student section for the International Society of Traumatic Studies.

U spokeswoman Valoree Dowell said Averill’s research has received national attention because of PTSD in the media and veterans returning from Iraq.

“It’s a very timely, important piece of work she’s doing,” Dowell said. “And it’s a very big deal for the U-we haven’t had a Fulbright in several years.”

Developed by Sen. J. William Fulbright and the U.S. government in 1946, the Fulbright award is the leading educational scholarship of its kind. The program is run between the United States and 150 countries and encourages global networking.

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U student Lynette Averill was awarded a $30,000 Fulbright scholarship.