What Donald Trump Got Wrong About PTSD

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The candidate made comments about PTSD. (Photo: AP Images)

Republican presidential nominee and former reality television personality Donald Trump, said, while speaking at a rally with the Retired American Warriors PAC in Virginia, that the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health issues among military personnel and veterans occurs to those who “see horror stories” during combat and “can’t handle it.” Those who are “strong” and “can handle it” do not suffer from PTSD and other mental health issues as a result of combat experience, the candidate said.

Trump’s comments are not only inaccurate, but dangerously so.

As the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs notes, PTSD is not only common in the military, but also among the American population at large, with 60 percent of all American men and 50 percent of all American women having experienced some form of trauma in their lifetimes.

And when it comes to veterans, these statistics are only more substantial given the kinds of trauma that many service members experience during deployment. Between 11 and 20 percent of veterans who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom will develop PTSD in a given year. 12 percent of veterans from the Gulf War also have PTSD, as do 30 percent of all Vietnam War veterans.

A 2013 report from the Department of Veterans Affairs found that 22 veterans commit suicide each day in America based on data collected between 1999 and 2011.

In a statement released today, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association (IAVA) noted, ”Veteran suicide is a serious and rising national public health challenge. PTSD, mental health injuries and suicide must be addressed aggressively, comprehensively and responsibly. Every national leader has a responsibility to use accurate and appropriate language when talking about mental health and suicide especially. The wrong messages on PTSD and suicide can perpetuate stigma and complicate an already complicated problem….Getting help for a mental health injury is not a sign of weakness, it’s a demonstration of strength. We encourage the public and media to use this time as a chance to educate and inform, rather than to attack and divide.”

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An individual may develop PTSD after having experienced or witnessed a traumatic event in which serious physical harm occurred or was threatened. Symptoms of the condition include reliving the traumatic experience through memories, flashbacks and nightmares; avoiding situations, people and places that remind the person of the experienced trauma, often resulting in social isolation as a perceived means of self-protection; increased arousal such as difficulty sleeping, irritability, difficulty concentrating, being easily startled and having difficulty feeling or showing affection; and negative feelings of blame and loss related to the traumatic event and memories surrounding it.

Treatment for PTSD often involves a combination of both psychotherapy and counseling, utilizing antidepressants to help regulate the feelings of anxiety those with PTSD reckon alongside therapy to help those with the condition work through their traumatic memories and find ways to cope with their emotions and symptoms while recognizing the validity of the immense difficulty of what they have survived.

PTSD was only first introduced into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1980, a huge step forward at the time for the validation and destigmatization of those who suffered from the condition, and for veterans in particular. At the time of its introduction into the diagnostic lexicon of modern psychology and psychiatry, the condition was defined as one caused by an experience “outside the range of usual human experience,” that is events such as war, genocide, and natural disaster. Subsequent revisions to the definition of diagnostic parameters for PTSD in the DSM have widened the net of the kinds of events that might be classified as traumatic, including domestic abuse and sexual assault. And yet, even as the clinical understanding of trauma expanded, cultural stigma associated with mental health disorders, and with PTSD in particular, have remained, largely because of the false notion perpetuated in comments like Trump’s that only those who “can’t handle it” deal with mental health issues such as PTSD while devaluing the experience and reality of trauma itself.

Daniel Miller, PhD, is the Director of the Neuroscience Program at Carthage College in Wisconsin and a professor of psychology and neuroscience there, has done research on PTSD, its effects, and treatment amongst veterans. He tells Yahoo Beauty, “PTSD has nothing to do with whether one is strong enough to battle the symptoms and it is insulting to suggest that. There are key vulnerability factors that make some individuals more susceptible to PTSD. For example, individuals with a behaviorally inhibited temperament, being female, and previous mild traumatic brain injuries have all been associated with higher rates of PTSD when said individuals experience severe trauma. To suggest that it is a matter of strength indicates no understanding of the disorder whatsoever.”

Echoes Keith Renshaw, PhD, and a professor of clinical psychology at George Mason University in Virginia whose work focuses on PTSD, tells Yahoo Beauty, “All people have individual vulnerabilities, and we all differ in how we handle stress and trauma. There are an incredible number of factors that likely go into whether someone ultimately develops PTSD after a trauma, including the nature of the trauma, their prior experiences throughout life, their support during and after the trauma, and even their genetic makeup. Although we do not yet know how to predict who will develop PTSD, what we do know is that getting help is essential, but when people perceive that they will be stigmatized for seeking help, they are less likely to seek it.”

Furthermore, Renshaw notes, “Over the past several years, the military has gone to great lengths to try to reduce the stigma associated with seeking help for PTSD and other psychological difficulties, but there is still tremendous work to be done in this area. To truly change the perception of stigma due to PTSD (and other psychological difficulties) in the military requires a culture shift. Such a shift requires strong leadership on the issue. Given this, it is essential to have clear, unequivocal support for service members who experience PTSD from the top down – and in the military, the President represents the absolute top level of leadership, as Commander in Chief. Comments from leadership that – even inadvertently – communicate that those with PTSD are weak have the capacity to do tremendous damage by reducing service members’ willingness to seek help when they are struggling – and those who need help but do not seek it are at the greatest risk for continued suffering, including suicide.”


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