PTSD: Not Just a “Veteran” Problem

PTSDIt is frustrating as a retired Army infantry officer to see people assume that veterans, particularly combat vets, live with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Most do not. This perception is unfair to veterans, perpetuates a larger misunderstanding of PTSD, and diverts attention away from a larger population in need.

Illustrating this problem, a combat vet recently told me about an ill-informed supervisor who replied, “I don’t need you going all PTSD on them,” when he volunteered for a high-profile assignment escorting a senior-level guest. The supervisor’s words perpetuated a stigma that does veterans no favors. Unsurprisingly, the vet left for other employment, and the employer lost the services of a talented, positive leader.

Unfortunately, the huge amount of well-intentioned public awareness on the military, intended to educate and motivate service members to seek treatment, has created the unintended consequence of stigmatizing the military, and shifting attention away from the broader population dealing with the condition in anonymity.

Why automatically assume vets are more likely to have PTSD than the non-veteran population at large? It certainly isn’t based on the facts, according to the National Center for PTSD.

  • About 7-8 percent of the adult U.S. population – 19,000,000 – will have PTSD at some point in their lives.
  • About 10 percent of all women and 4 percent of men will develop PTSD sometime in their lives.
  • About 8 million non-veteran adults have some degree of diagnosed PTSD during a given year. This number is significantly greater than the estimated 432,000 and 720,000 Iraq and Afghan wars veterans, respectively, who have had or currently have some form of PTSD.
  • Only 1 in 10 service members actually see combat. The leading cause of PTSD in women soldiers is not combat; it is sexual assault, just as with civilian women.

Media coverage of the very real challenges facing some veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has focused attention on PTSD and the military, while there has been significantly less media focus on non-war trauma and resulting PTS in the general population. Unfortunately, the huge amount of well-intentioned public awareness on the military, intended to educate and motivate service members to seek treatment, has created the unintended consequence of stigmatizing the military, and shifting attention away from the broader population dealing with the condition in anonymity. This must change!

As noted, PTSD is a condition that extends beyond our veterans and impacts millions of Americans.

  • It can affect not just those who experience a trauma but also those who witness it or pick up the pieces afterwards.
  • There are many events that can initiate onset of PTSD besides war, including the sudden death of a loved one; rape; sexual or physical abuse; childhood neglect; natural or man-made disasters or accidents; or robberies.
  • PTSD is rarely a debilitating condition. Most cases are mild; less are moderate and respond well to treatment. Quoting one psychiatrist with experience treating PTSD, “PTSD does not have to be like lung cancer in its severity; it can be more like the flu and very treatable.”
  • A relatively small minority of people develop severe cases that leave them permanently disabled.

Perpetuating an assumption that PTS or PTSD is largely a veteran problem is counterproductive both to reintegration of veterans into the work force and to eliminate the stigma around seeking treatment in veteran and civilian populations alike. I am proud of how our military and veteran leaders are now spearheading efforts to reduce mental health stigma, who have led by example to openly seek behavioral health assistance and talk about it. Respected mental health advocate Patrick Kennedy has noted that the progress in addressing military PTSD has welcome benefits for reducing stigma for civilian first responders, and civilian women and men who have suffered sexual assault, child abuse, and other traumas.

“PTSD does not have to be like lung cancer in its severity; it can be more like the flu and very treatable.”

We need to address PTSD with an understanding of the facts of who is affected, the knowledge that it is a most treatable condition, a resolve to fight any perceptions that stigmatize rather than empower, and a commitment to helping all those who live with this condition. PTSD is not just a military or veteran challenge; it is one for all of society.

Resources for signs of PTS and PTSD

  1. http://www.helpguide.org/articles/ptsd-trauma/post-traumatic-stress-disorder.htm
  2. For veterans seeking resources and information on PTSD tailored for military service members, veterans and their families, I strongly recommend “Make the Connection” resource and link below: http://maketheconnection.net/conditions/ptsd?utm_source=adcenter&utm_medium=cpc&utm_term=ptsd%20military&utm_content=ptsdveterans&utm_campaign=ptsd
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6 Comments. Leave new

Howard Savin
May 3, 2016 8:41 pm

This is a critical alignment of perspective on PTSD. Well done!

Reply

Thanks, Howard.

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Nathan Butzen
May 5, 2016 12:43 pm

This is an interesting perspective that is not often heard! In the efforts of well-meaning advocates to increase awareness about PTSD and PTSD treatment in general, there can be collateral damage to our service members who do not have PTSD. Unfortunately, we continue to see PTSD under-diagnosed and under-treated in the general population, especially in poor communities. In working with underserved individuals, I frequently find they are diagnosed with conditions other than PTSD , trauma histories are not explored, and they are treated only with medications (often antipsychotics) rather than a combination of medications and empirically-based therapies (CPT, EMDR, Prolonged Exposure Therapy, etc.) So, we still have a lot of work to do in de-stigmatizing PTSD and training providers on detection and treatment in the community at large.

Reply

I agree with you, Nathan. There is much work to be done. But only by talking openly about PTS and PTSD itself that the larger population is confronting can we empower rather stigmatize the reaction to its early manifestations in getting timely assistance. Thanks, again! Steve

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I wanted to let you know I enjoyed your submission on Beacon Lens titled PTSD: Not Just a “Veteran” Problem.
Your statement, “The leading cause of PTSD in women soldiers is not combat; it is sexual assault, just as with civilian women”, reminded me of the show I saw on WHRO “The Invisible War”.

*The most shameful and best-kept secret in the U.S. military is the epidemic of rape and sexual assault within the ranks.
An American female soldier in a combat zone is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire.
A culture of privilege and impunity has resulted in few prosecutions and the systematic isolation of women who dare to report the crimes.*

I do believe that this is the worst kind of PTSD that our women in uniform can experience.
Bravo, for including and stating that this is a real form of PTSD.

Reply

I am one of thousands of people who suffers with PTSD but I am not a veteran. PTSD comes from when the brain has such a shock it becomes chemically imbalanced. Everyone has a different story. 2008 is when I was first diagnosed. Since then it has become harder and harder to try an have a “normal” life. Truth is I have a mental illness that requires a substantial amount of medication just to be able to maintain. My life will never be normal again. We all may be crazy but we all got there in different ways.

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