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Military & Veteran Lawyer > Blog > Military Disability Information > What is PTSD and why is it so misunderstood?

What is PTSD and why is it so misunderstood?


Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a condition that can occur as a result of experiencing or witnessing a traumatic, life-threatening event, such as accidents, the sudden death of a loved one, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, rape and other violent assaults, ongoing physical and emotional abuse, and war.  PTSD can cause the following types of symptoms:

  1. Reliving or recreating the traumatic event over and over in the mind via flashbacks, nightmares and mental images.
  2. Avoiding activities, places or even people that trigger or exacerbate memories of the trauma. This naturally can result in feelings of social isolation.
  3. Reactivity and hypervigilance – being constantly on the alert for danger, feeling jumpy, easily irritated and being prone to anger and outbursts of rage.

Some of the associated physical and mental problems associated with PTSD include depression, loss of memory and cognitive problems. These symptoms can be debilitating, interfering with normal daily activities and enjoyment of life, and they often negatively affect a person’s ability to cope with work and family pressures.  Divorce, unemployment and substance abuse are, unfortunately, common among people with PTSD.

According to the National Center for PTSD, 7-8% of the population will be diagnosed with PTSD at some point in their lives, and there are approximately 8 million adults suffering with PTSD during any given year). With regard to our nation’s veterans, the numbers are even higher; 11-20% of those who served in the Gulf War, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom have been diagnosed with PTSD. The figures are even grimmer with regard to Vietnam Vets; it has been estimated that approximately 30% of Vietnam Veterans have suffered from PTSD in their lifetimes, according to VA research on PTSD.

While PTSD is a growing problem among Americans, unfortunately, its prevalence has not resulted in a greater understanding of the issue by the general public; in fact, there is still a stigma associated with it. Much of the stigma and prejudice stem from several commonly believed myths about PTSD, as explained by the PTSD Alliance:

Myth 1: PTSD affects someone immediately after a traumatic ordeal. If time has passed, someone is no longer at risk for PTSD.

While symptoms for PTSD often arise within the first 3 months after a traumatic event, many times it takes months or even years for symptoms to appear. To make it even more confusing, some people experience symptoms rather continuously for years; but in others, symptoms may come and go through the years, such as in the case of victims of childhood abuse.

The nature of PTSD can make it very difficult for people to recognize PTSD in themselves. So much time may have passed that they do not associate their symptoms with trauma from their past. In addition, victims of domestic violence often don’t recognize that prolonged experience of abuse from their partners increases their risk for PTSD.

Myth 2: Only military veterans experience PTSD.

Although Posttraumatic Stress Disorder does indeed affect our war vets; the fact is, PTSD can develop in anyone, including children. Research tells us that 70% of all Americans within their lifetime will experience some type of major traumatic event. Out of that group, about 20% will develop symptoms of PTSD. In addition, 10% of all women develop Posttraumatic Stress Disorder during their lifetime. It may be surprising to learn that women are two times as likely as men to suffer from PTSD. Women can be more susceptible to violence, including domestic violence, rape, and beatings. Children who experience abuse, neglect, or molestation are also highly susceptible to PTSD sometime in their lifetime.

Myth 3: Experiencing PTSD is a symptom of mental weakness; people should just “get over” traumatic events of life.

This is a common PTSD myth that can be difficult to combat. While the majority of people who go through a traumatic ordeal do go on to readjust to normal life after a period of time, not everyone can, and it has nothing to do with mental weakness. Many other factors go into determining whether or not someone goes on to develop Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, including but not limited to:

  • the type of trauma experienced
  • the severity and longevity of the trauma
  • personality traits
  • how the brain releases chemicals to combat stress
  • whether or not the individual experienced childhood trauma
  • whether or not an individual has a strong social support system

 (PTSD alliance)

Additionally, vets who suffer from PTSD often find themselves maltreated and shunned, and many report experiencing prejudice from friends, family members and even potential employers, because people have a misperception that all vets who suffer from PTSD are violent.  While it is rare for vets with PTSD to commit violent acts, unfortunately, the news coverage of such episodes tends to color people’s perceptions and tends to remain in their memories.

Ironically, those most at risk of being a victim of violence at the hands of a vet with PTSD are the vets themselves, as the suicide rate is very high among vets suffering with PTSD. According to the US Dept. of Veterans Affairs, on average, 20 vets commit suicide every day. 

The social stigma associated with PTSD is a contributing factor in the fact that many vets refuse to seek treatment for their PTSD.  For vets, it can be difficult to admit that they have a problem because mental illness is, unfortunately, seen as a weakness or a failing. In fact, vets often say that the only people that really understand them and understand what they are going through are other combat vets.

One way to combat the myths and stigma surrounding PTSD is through public education campaigns.  In 2014, the United States Senate designated the month of June as PTSD Awareness Month. By making people aware of the facts about PTSD and those who have it, it is possible to reduce the stigma and, as a result, the high suicide rate among sufferers.   

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