In the past, people only ever thought of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as affecting soldiers. Even as research and understanding around this disorder gain more attention, there is still a huge cloud of misconception about PTSD. There is still a huge stigma around PTSD and the myths surrounding it only further contribute to it.
While the term is new, people have been dealing with the psychological impact of war and trauma since humans have been fighting. Nostalgia, shell shock, war strain, combat fatigue, and other labels have attempted to explain the psychological impact of war and trauma through history. Even though our understanding of the disorder has evolved, people still cling to the myths that are as outdated as the old terms.
Myth 1: Anything can be traumatic
While it’s true that many events can be stressful, there is actually a very specific diagnostic criterion to determine if a situation has risen above “stressful” and can be classified as “traumatic”. People throw the word “traumatic” around a lot, but very few situations actually fit the classification. According to the DSM-V, the criteria for a traumatic event include: “exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violence” and directly experiencing the event, witnessing it in person, or being indirectly exposed to the event. So yes, while people face many stressful and hard situations in their life very few of them will ever fit the model for being truly traumatic.
Myth 2: You get PTSD immediately after trauma
Right after a traumatic event, people will experience stress reactions. However, PTSD actually can’t even be diagnosed unless those symptoms last for at least a month. During the first month after an event, these stress reactions are called “acute stress”, which is similar to PTSD but only after a month or longer of the symptoms can a diagnosis of PTSD be considered.
Symptoms of PTSD usually emerge within the first 3 months after a traumatic event, but in some cases, the PTSD doesn’t occur until months or even years later. Something may trigger a response in someone at a later point in life that brings back the memories of the traumatic event.
Myth 3: Only people in the military get PTSD
PTSD has almost exclusively been discussed and associated with military personnel. The truth is that, while the military does have the largest percentage of PTSD, anyone can develop it, even children. Research states that 70% of all Americans will experience some type of major trauma in their lifetime and out of them 20% will develop PTSD. Victims of childhood abuse or neglect or victims of sexual or domestic assault are at risk of PTSD. Other occupations that encounter trauma daily, such as police officers, firefighters, and EMTs also experience higher rates of PTSD. Trauma doesn’t discriminate based on age, gender, or occupation so people need to stop thinking that this disorder is limited to those in the military.
Myth 4: People with PTSD are crazy and/or dangerous
The media loves the character trope of the “crazed war vet”. It’s been done countless times through war films, TV shows, and news stories. PTSD is not defined by psychosis or violence; rather symptoms of it are about coping with the memories and implications of a traumatic event. Also, “crazy” should never be used when talking about anyone, let alone anyone with a mental illness. It’s damaging, stigmatizing, and just plain wrong.
Myth 5: You can’t do anything for those that have it
PTSD is actually a disorder that is very responsive to treatment. There are several options for treatment that have been found to be effective. With the new spotlight on the issue, several occupations that have high levels of PTSD are working to get people support. Therapy sessions after a traumatic event are now mandatory for many police officers and firefighters. The hardest part if recognizing the symptoms of PTSD and seeking help.
Myth 6: They should get over it
I’m sure anyone with PTSD would love to “get over it”. No one wants to be haunted by severely negative memories. While PTSD is absolutely treatable, the symptoms don’t just magically go away. Some people find they can learn coping skills on their own, while others benefit more from professional help. Either way, there is no magical timeline for when people get over the trauma. Everyone recovers at their own rate and telling them to get over it shows that you truly lack understanding of what this disorder is.
Myth 7: PTSD is a sign of weakness
This is a myth that that has clung to every mental illness and disorder. For some reason, people just can’t seem to let go of the idea that mental illness is equal to weakness. PTSD is a perfectly natural human response to an uncommon experience. There are several factors that can impact how severely PTSD is, or how quickly they are able to overcome it such as duration, type of trauma, the severity of trauma, number of traumas, and when it took place. The biggest influence though is whether or not a person has a good support system. So don’t further stigmatize those with PTSD by telling them they’re weak. Instead, help them feel strong by supporting them through their treatment.
Since 2003, the Delray Center for Healing has provided exceptional psychiatric and therapeutic care for mental health, eating, and substance use disorders. To learn more about our philosophy and treatment approach, download our free e-book, “Psychiatry Redefined,” written by our founder and medical director, Raul J. Rodriguez, MD.