On PTSD Awareness Day, Blatant Misconceptions On What the Disorder Really Is

In an op-ed piece for Hearst Newspapers, entitled “Help Our Warriors Cope with PTSD,” Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta urged Americans to "Talk with America's veterans. Recognize that normal responses to traumatic events include feeling scared, anxious, sad or guilty. Yet, if these feelings persist after a month, or get worse, or start to return, something may not be right.” 

“The end of the Iraq War and the draw-down in Afghanistan will ease some of the strain on our troops but post-traumatic stress will remain a critical issue for decades to come. The Department of Defense remains determined to urgently address the unseen wounds of war. We ask all Americans to join us in helping to protect those who have fought to protect us."

Like me, you may not have known that today is PTSD Awareness Day, which was on Wednesday. And like me, you may suffer or you may know someone who suffers from PTSD, but you’re unsure of what’s going on, what or how to help, or even how to address it. You may know that PTSD is a mental health issue that can occur after someone goes through a traumatic event like war, sexual assault, or disaster, so it’s not just a “military” problem.

We’ve all seen, of course, the stereotypical PTSD sufferer as fomented by movies and popular culture.  It used to be – and perhaps still is in some circles – a send-up of the Vietnam veteran. You know, the old guy in jungle fatigues who has the “thousand yard stare,” frequently flashes back to hazy scenes of violence, drinks too much, can’t hold a job, and is constantly at odds with authorities because he can’t control his anger. Well, stereotypes are rooted in some level of authenticity, and there are many veterans from Vietnam, Korea, World War II, and the past decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who exhibit some, all or many these characteristics. 

A recent episode of CBS’ 48 Hours Mystery highlighted the case of a returning Army veteran from Iraq who exhibited all the symptoms of classic PTSD and within a few months of his return, killed his girlfriend in a violent rage. He never went to trial because he died of an overdose of painkillers. PTSD doesn’t make every veteran a killer or even a threat. It just means that some veterans have, may or will experience behavioral issues that negatively impact every facet of their lives, families, marriages, jobs ....

The shame of it all is just that – shame. Within the military services, there remains a stigma associated with seeking assistance with post-traumatic stress. For example, it’s right there in the Army’s marketing brand, “Army Strong.” How can you be “Army Strong” when you can’t control the obsessive thoughts that keep you awake for days on end, the crushing guilt, the incredible shame, or the almost uncontrollable urge to kill yourself? There’s also the very real threat to one’s military career for coming forward as well. Some soldiers have been dismissed from the service for “adjustment disorders” instead of receiving the necessary medical attention they need and deserve. It’s not an easy problem to solve.

The Veterans Administration recommends 12 things you can do to help a veteran with post-traumatic stress.  (I think they’re appropriate for victims of all types of trauma.) 

They include:

- Think broadly. When trauma happens, family, friends, coworkers and community are affected too.

- Learn about common reactions to trauma and readjustment after war to life at home.

- Be aware of where to get help for PTSD, including specific resources for Veterans. 

- Know that treatment for PTSD can help.

- Know the facts. More than half of U.S. adults will experience trauma in their lifetime. About seven out of 100 will get PTSD at some point. For veterans and people who have been through violence and abuse the number is higher.

So today is PTSD Awareness Day. I don’t think they’ll be any parades, ceremonies or public displays, but you and I will know, and maybe for now, that’s good enough.