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Harry Croft, M.D Headshot

Combat PTSD Stigma Made Worse by Fort Hood Shooting Media Coverage

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The media has a habit of connecting mental illness to acts of violence, whether a connection truly exists or not. If a person has a mental illness of any sort, it will always become part of the headline, whereas people with other kinds of illnesses maintain their privacy. Mental illness is always assumed to be a proximate cause.

At no time has this been clearer than during the media coverage of the tragic Fort Hood shooting earlier this month. For example, one of CNN's headlines was, "Fort Hood Shooter was Iraq Vet Being Treated for Mental Health Issues." The first paragraph of the article mentioned psychiatric disorders and in the second paragraph, they also note that, "The Iraq war veteran was being evaluated for post-traumatic stress disorder." To CNN's credit, they also quoted Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, the post's commanding general, who believed that the shooter's underlying medical conditions were not the precipitating factor.

The problem is that CNN, and other news sources, constantly mentioned post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) alongside the horrific violence, tacitly drawing a connection in the readers' minds whether PTSD was to blame for the violence or not. By saying that a shooter suffered from "mental problems," we are led to believe that these "mental problems" are what led to the heinous act.

But what is extremely clear to those of us who actually work with veterans and others with PTSD is this type of violence is an extreme abnormality and does not portray what the average person with PTSD experiences. While anger is associated with PTSD for some, even in the worst cases it certainly doesn't tend to manifest in the murdering on innocent people.

And the issue with suggesting that violence is somehow synonymous with PTSD is that it further stigmatizes a group of people who have a hard enough time coming out of the shadows as it is. It is extremely challenging to get service members (and others) to get treatment for the symptoms of PTSD with the negative connotations people already heap atop mental illness, let alone with the insinuation that these people are somehow killers in waiting.

Perhaps even worse is that when society at large starts to internalize this message, all veterans are assumed to suffer from PTSD and deemed dangerous. While once viewed as heroic warriors, these people now find themselves ostracized from employment, relationships, certifications, and even peer groups.

But what these brave men and women need is our compassion, our understanding, and our acknowledgement of the facts. And the facts are that only 1 in 5 veterans experience PTSD, and for those who do, there are many successful treatment options available.

In addition, veterans with PTSD should:

-- Find someone they trust to speak to about their feelings. Keeping it all inside makes it harder to deal with.
-- Stick to their normal routine as often as possible.
-- Realize with the right help they can get better and live a normal life.
-- Don't blame themselves for PTSD
-- Live a healthy life and get plenty of exercise.
-- Have caregivers (spouse, partner, friends) be involved but also know when to give them space.
-- Seek professional help and local support groups.

No person with PTSD -- veteran or not -- should ever be treated like they're a time bomb, as there is no science supporting that, only the media's innuendo.

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