When Brittney Griner returns home after 294 days of being imprisoned in Russia, she will face the potentially difficult task of reintegrating into her normal life, a process that experts say can be unpredictable and fraught with both mental and physical health issues.
“When someone comes home, naturally we have this really joyous moment of reuniting the family, being back in America and just getting released and having that sense of celebratory moment,” said Liz Frank, the executive director of Hostage US, a nonprofit that provides resources and guidance to detainees and their families. “After that is when things start to kind of pile up.”
On the most basic level, according to Georgetown adjunct professor of psychiatry Anne Speckhard, who is also an expert on Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), hostages will generally have some level of trauma from their experience, particularly when they’re being held in a country like Russia that is not known for treating prisoners well.
But after living with so much uncertainty about when or if they might be freed, their experiences at home can vary, with emotions that often conflict with the happiness of being home.
“I don’t think she’s ever going to completely get over this,” Speckhard said. “I think it’s going to be one of those experiences that stays with her forever. She’ll probably flash back to it from time to time when she gets reminders, but if she has a supportive family, and if they can deal with their emotions of her having been gone … she may have a lot to deal with or not too much.”
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Debriefing process for Griner
According to a senior Biden administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, Griner will be offered “a wide range of support options” that the U.S. government provides to returning hostages.
Experts say that typically involves a detailed examination of a hostage’s physical health, where issues like malnutrition and muscle atrophy sometimes need to be treated. Another common problem that tends to come up with detainees is a Vitamin D deficiency if they have had limited exposure to sunlight.
But a key part in the mental health rehabilitation is the debriefing process, where Griner will be asked to detail her experiences as best she can with Department of Defense officials and mental health counselors. Though that can be painful, experts say it is often helpful as a first step toward normalization.
“When you’re in something, you usually can’t process your emotions,” Speckhard said. “So when you come out suddenly, all the emotions hit you, and it could be a little bit like a big wave washing over you and taking you down. So the debrief is a chance to let your defenses down, let all those emotions hit you and maybe spare your family on some of that.”
A ‘profound loss of self’
Though it’s unclear at this point exactly what kind of conditions she was forced to live in or how she was treated as a prisoner, Hector Garcia said a highly competitive athlete like Griner likely faced even greater challenges in an environment where her need for achievement and stimulation was taken away for so long.
Garcia, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and an expert on PTSD, said she has probably suffered from some form of depression simply by being isolated from loved ones and perhaps by an inability to communicate with other prisoners due to the language barrier.
“When people are incarcerated, there’s often a profound loss of self,” Garcia said. “That can be especially painful for people who tend to have a high need for achievement. If there was exposure to violence, as there often is in prison, one can develop (PTSD), and there’s a set of troubling symptoms there, re-experiencing symptoms such as nightmares or intrusive memories.
“Certain stimuli that may remind you of that trauma can cause a lot of distress — avoiding crowds or getting irritated very easily, withdrawing from loved ones. Those kinds of things aren’t uncommon.”
Jonathan Alpeyrie, a photojournalist who was captured in 2013 by Syrian rebels and held hostage for 81 days while covering the war there, said what helped him get over his experience most was jumping “straight back into war” coverage. Though his ordeal differed from Griner’s in significant ways, he said he would recommend Griner start playing basketball again as soon as she can.
“That was the way for me to deal with my demons,” Alpeyrie said. “With time, as everything does, it fades away and you can step back and look back and look at it as a part of your life and be grateful for having that experience at the end. That’s how I ended up seeing it.
“I know it sounds weird to be grateful for it, but to be resilient and strong and find that out by yourself — the only way you can is when you go through a crisis.”
How can Griner’s loved ones help?
Garcia agreed that getting back to everyday life events, including basketball, will be a huge step toward regaining Griner’s sense of normalcy. But it will also require those closer to Griner to play their part in leading her in that direction.
“A lot of people I think try to collude with avoidance,” Garcia said. “Some people think they’re helping their family members if they say, ‘Don’t go to the store, I’ll take care of it for you.’ But it’s really hindering the process of recovery. Reintegrating is really key, and if people can’t do that on their own, there are empirically validated, structured treatments to help them do that.”
Frank said some of the biggest challenges people in hostage situations face when they return are lack of sleep, practical concerns like getting their finances back in order and an internal struggle about resuming their careers, if that is what led them to the foreign country where they were detained.
But in the end, no recovery process is the same, and some people will find it easier than others to re-assimilate into their old lives.
“It’s constant stress for however long you’re held, and those mental challenges every day of just surviving a pretty unimaginable situation just kind of compound on themselves,” she said. “I will say it’s not something we see categorically, that everyone comes home and has PTSD or anything like that.
“It can really run the gamut of folks come home and jump right back into where they were, or folks struggle and have moments of ups and downs, and that can last for a really long time. I think it’s important to recognize that, so folks can feel more comfortable meeting themselves where they’re at.”