A clear disconnect exists between how we perceive physical and mental illnesses. This cognitive dissonance isn’t particularly logical (because no one would choose to live with anxiety, schizophrenia, depression or any of the other maladies laid out in the DSM-5 or ICD-10 diagnosis codes), but that doesn’t stop people from reflexively suggesting that a person who suffers from panic attacks, agoraphobia, or bipolar disorder is making their affliction up, doing it for attention, or otherwise weak in some way.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is one of these misunderstood disorders (perhaps one of the most misunderstood). You can read the full criteria for diagnosis here, but the Cliff’s Notes are well known: PTSD occurs after someone has experienced a traumatic event (one which has endangered the life, sexual agency, or emotional integrity of the subject or someone they’re close to) and is diagnosed after the individual has experienced symptoms including intrusive thoughts, nightmares, emotional numbness, hyper-vigilance, an exaggerated startle response, and a marked need to avoid anything having to do with the traumatic incident (triggers) for over a month. What’s not as commonly understood is that PTSD doesn’t just go away, and is responsible for a variety of negative life outcomes, including suicide (although it’s important to mention that killing oneself as a result of PTSD isn’t as common as you might think).
Like any illness, mental or physical, PTSD doesn’t exist in a vacuum. A shaky understanding by the general public has the potential to compound the matter. The more we view PTSD as something shameful, or a sign of weakness, the more people are going to be afraid to talk about it, because they’ll see their experience as an embarrassment. Therein lies the rub (and one of the many reasons why mental illness is a public health crisis).
According to recent statistics, 70 percent of American adults (that’s over 200 million people) have experienced an event that could be classified as traumatic. These traumatic events may mean war, but they also include child abuse, domestic violence, natural disasters, sexual assault, and accidents. Of those 70 percent of American adults, up to 20 percent go on to develop PTSD. PTSD United reports that, at any given time, 8% of Americans are living with the disorder. It’s hard then, to think that something that affects so many people could possibly be explained away as some sort of character deficit.
Here’s a pertinent example: In 2012, San Diego residents were upset when the VA proposed building a residential treatment center for vets who suffered from PTSD or other traumatic brain injuries nearby a school. While numbers indicated that there was very little danger from vets, the community had an emotional reaction. As the VA’s official blog points out, these beliefs are possibly due to headlines that have referred to vets suffering from PTSD as “ticking time bombs,” or articles suggesting that returned vets turning violent is a “growing problem,” — despite numbers to the contrary.
The debate over where to build the center raises important questions: If our vet panic was warranted, wouldn’t it suggest a greater need for facilities? Doesn’t it beg for more support?