The impact of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has no boundaries. Millions of Americans are suffering from it and know it. Millions more are dealing with it and don’t know they have it.
By David Chmiel
More than 8 million Americans struggle to overcome the terrifying and sustained effects of a traumatic incident. As the numbers continue to climb, mental-health professionals are devoting more resources to understanding the debilitating emotional toll on victims of all ages.
You could be a battle-toughened war veteran turned actor, a child of privilege bound for the Oval Office, an iconic and reclusive author, or a famous singer. Or you could be one of the anonymous millions: the survivor of a destructive car accident; the victim of a violent crime; the firefighter, first-responder, or police officer whose career requires running into harm’s way. You could even be the unborn child of a battered woman or the kindergartner who survived an act of violence in a place of learning.
If you are one of the 224 million U.S. adults who have suffered a traumatic incident, witnessed trauma sustained by a loved one, or experienced the traumatic effects of simply loving or caring for someone struggling with their own lives, you could be among those suffering from a full-blown case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
The National Institute of Mental Health defines PTSD as “an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to an event or ordeal in which there was potential for or the actual occurrence of grave physical harm.” People living with PTSD endure symptoms such as depression, recurring nightmares, panic attacks or flashbacks where a person feels like they’re reliving the original traumatic situation, or experience a state of high alert called hyperarousal. These are symptoms that can lead to substance abuse, sleep disorders, withdrawal from human contact, and social struggles such as feeling anxious in a crowd or feeling detached from their lives.
There is no cure for PTSD, but patients manage the effects with medication and a variety of anxiety-reducing mechanisms such as psychotherapy, yoga, and other activities. The Congressional Research Service reported that it had spent $6 billion on mental-health treatment. More than 900,000 have obtained healthcare from the Veterans Administration. The good news is more than 55 percent of returning veterans are seeking help. Not everyone exposed to a traumatic event or event falls victim to PTSD, but raised awareness, improved diagnosis, and successes in treatment have helped men and women seek help.
“There are people who grew up in abject poverty and pervasive violence, or who served in combat for years, who never suffer a moment of anxiety,” said Dr. Shauna Joye, a psychotherapist, and professor of Clinical Psychology at Georgia Southern State University in Atlanta. “Similarly, there are children and adults who shouldn’t have a care in the world, but they are full of worry.” Just as happiness is credited to genetics, anxiety also runs in families.
THE MILITARY MORES
Of the nearly 3 million servicemen and women who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002, 30 percent of returning veterans have sought aid for the effects of PTSD. Generations of warriors, from the beginning of human history, have no doubt suffered from battle-related anxiety. The VA reports veterans represent seven percent of the nation’s population but account for 20 percent of its suicides. The Washington Post reported that, in 2012, more servicemen and women died from suicide than in battle, the top cause of death among troops that year.
Struggling World War I veterans diagnosed “shell-shocked,” while returning World War II veterans suffered from “battle fatigue.” J.D. Salinger, the reclusive author of Catcher in the Rye, was one of those. Many scholars have linked the suicidal tendencies and PTSD-like feelings of the book’s main character to Salinger’s emotional response to the war.
In 2013, a Harvard University researcher, Dr. George Vaillant, researched with colleagues the surveys of surviving World War II veterans from the classes of 1939 to 1944. They uncovered 72 men who experienced combat, five of them suffered from PTSD-like symptoms. Two men committed suicide, one dropped out of the survey, and one murdered. Scholars reviewing the findings reported, “one of the men most troubled by traumatic memories of war became president of the United States.” Who? In an op-ed to the Hartford Courant, University of Connecticut professor Ken Fuchsman, himself a Vietnam vet, sought out the researchers to confirm President John F. Kennedy, a decorated Naval officer in the Pacific Theater, had PTSD. While a story in a 2009 issue of The Atlantic intimated Kennedy had PTSD, the researchers never confirmed the assertion. Kennedy’s heroic efforts aboard PT 109, which was rammed by a Japanese destroyer, killing two of his crewmen, as well as the death of his brother Joe and his brother-in-law during combat, could have contributed to his symptoms.
PTSD IN CIVILIANS
A study from the National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health revealed 21 percent of men and women involved in traumatic accidents had PTSD within a year of the traumatic event; seven percent suffered from depression after the incident. Despite signs that many emergency-room patients show symptoms of PTSD, it is rare for hospitals to test for the disorder.
PTSD can manifest in many ways, from first responders to crash or assault victims. Georgia Southern State University’s Joye believes adults with stressful lives can have PTSD.
“There is mounting evidence about the effects that parenting children with autism or severe behavioral issues can create,” Joye says. “Many parents learn to compartmentalize what they go through on a daily basis. But many others find themselves in a downward spiral that is difficult to overcome because of the all-consuming role of caring for children who require so much care.”
Joye served for six years in the National Air Guard. She said it is impossible to assume that because servicemen and women train for combat, they should be more able to process what they went through during their deployment.
PROTECTING OUR CHILDREN
The number of school shootings in America can be a case study on how PTSD can manifest after a horrific incident. Massacres at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Stoneman Douglass all left schools, families, and communities dealing with trauma. The National Center for PTSD has found that about 35 percent of girls and 30 percent of boys will experience a traumatic event in their lives; 10 percent of girls and 6 percent of boys could develop PTSD. What are those numbers like for residents of Newton, Columbine, Blackburg, and Parkland?
Dr. Ryan Herringa is Assistant Professor of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine & Public Health. He said children are susceptible to the most ordinary form of trauma. “Bullying can be severe enough to cause PTSD itself,” Dr. Herringa says. “That aside, bullying has been shown to increase the risk for anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems in kids. When bullying happens to a child in school, it is taking away a sense of safety in that environment.”
PUTTING NAMES WITH FACES
People struggling with the effects of trauma, from early stages to a full-blown case of PTSD, can today seek help from a variety of sources. Federal, state, and local agencies offer ever-evolving support systems. And sufferers who may not yet be ready to seek advice in public can do so online and use digital tools that will help them take the initial steps they need. The National Trauma Institute reports that car crashes, workplace accidents, falls, gunshots, and domestic violence cause 41 million emergency-room visits and two million hospital admissions each year. The NTI studies show that trauma leads to $406 billion in health-related losses to the nation’s bottom line, either through healthcare costs or lost productivity at home, at school, or work.
So what happens when someone goes to the hospital after a car accident or violent crime? Do doctors look for symptoms of PTSD? Most likely, no. Often, screenings are neglected when setting a bone or stitching a wound takes priority. As PTSD awareness gains traction, as support builds for counseling and other forms of treatment, as you witness an out-of-character outburst from a friend, a loved one, a stranger, remember that the faces of PTSD—famous, anonymous, familiar—are all around you.