Op-Ed: Battling the Stigma of PTSD

This op-ed was published by the Raleigh News & Observer on November 11, 2016. Click here to read it in the N&O.

In the flowerbed of our family home there is a stone marker; we placed it there five years ago in memory of my father after he passed away. Several times a year – on his birthday, the anniversary of his death, and Veteran’s Day – I take a moment to stop by and reflect on the life of a man forever scarred by war.

Matt's father

Matt's father

My dad was a Vietnam veteran and a double amputee. Both of his legs were blown off when he was 19 years old. He suffered from chronic PTSD for 42 years, haunted by nightmares, the regret of killing and memories of watching his friends die. He never got the help he needed and deserved. Instead, he self-medicated and spent the last 20 years of his life addicted to prescription drugs.

On Oct. 3, during an event organized by the Retired American Warriors PAC, the Republican candidate for president Donald Trump showed an astonishing ignorance of PTSD when he made the following remark:

“When you talk about the mental health problems, when people come back from war and combat and they see things that maybe a lot of folks in this room have seen many times over and you’re strong and you can handle it, but a lot of people can’t handle it ...”

I don’t believe it was Trump’s intention to belittle veterans or to make light of their suffering, but I find his comments disturbing nonetheless. Because not only do those comments reflect his own opinion; they give voice to what many people believe about those who suffer from PTSD – that they are weak.

The idea is certainly not new. The false association between mental illness and personal weakness – commonly seen as a lack of an ability to confront and endure powerful emotions that deny one’s identity and worth – has been around for many years. However, when that stereotype is reinforced by a man running for the highest office in the land, a man who has the power to shape veterans policy, and a man who should frankly be better educated on the subject, it is an even more serious problem.

It is dangerous and irresponsible to perpetuate the idea that those who suffer from PTSD symptoms are weak people – it is simply untrue. PTSD is a set of symptoms that result from experiencing traumatic events, and it can happen to anyone, regardless of how strong they are perceived to be. A PTSD diagnosis is not an incurable disease. The symptoms can be managed with therapy, medication or often a combination of both. It is actually a temporary condition, and by working through their trauma and developing more sophisticated coping mechanisms, those who suffer from it can find their way back to a normal life. It doesn’t have to be a death sentence, but all too often it becomes one when the sufferer does not receive proper treatment.

My dad believed he had PTSD because he was weak, and he believed the only path to healing was to rally some mystical internal strength and just “get over it.” He tried and failed for 42 years to “get over it” on his own, and every time he failed it only reinforced the idea that he wasn’t strong enough to cope. Although he never followed through, he often considered suicide to be his only escape from the pain.

While my father bears a share of the blame for his failure to get help, he is also a victim of a culture all too willing to pass judgment on those who suffer from psychological problems. It is the stigma of weakness that kept him, and continues to keep other veterans, from asking for help. For soldiers who pride themselves on their bravery, and their toughness, they would rather suffer in silence than bear the weight of such a label.

If we as a society want to help our veterans lead healthy and productive lives when they return from war, we must create an environment where they feel comfortable asking for help. Seeking treatment should be viewed, not as a sign of weakness, but as an act of courage.

Removing stigmas and stereotypes is a difficult process, and it doesn’t happen overnight. To truly change how we think about and respond to PTSD, we have to challenge false ideas wherever they appear; especially when those false ideas come from those with great power and influence, such as Trump. We owe it to our veterans to educate ourselves about PTSD, and to try to understand their suffering – and in so doing to realize that no veteran need suffer to begin with.

On Veteran’s Day this year, when I pay my visit to my father’s marker, I’ll be left with lingering questions – ones that I’ll never be able to answer. How would his life and mine have turned out if he had gotten help for PTSD? What if he hadn’t been so afraid of appearing weak?