“I don’t know why no one talked about it. It’s as if my family is ashamed of me.”
If you had to hear your father, brother, or other loved one say that about themselves, imagine what it did to me as my own father tried to explain what was going through his mind as he tried to recount what madness had happened over the past days of him not being able to sleep. What seemed like untreatable mania with his medicine was just a quick fix once his doctors acknowledged that he is a PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) sufferer.
That ‘it’ in my household stood in place of actually saying ‘PTSD.’ My father, who is an Army veteran that has also been diagnosed with lung cancer, never let me be a stranger to what PTSD was and explained throughout my life how the things he experienced in Korea caused his issues, but with others, he always seemed to naturally withdraw if the PTSD topic came up, because he knew people (even those he loved dearly) would think he was sick. I never saw him as sick—he was always just Dad.
Explaining PTSD to people who either have never heard of it or experienced anyone with it is difficult. There have been countless situations where I’ve heard people refer to it as “being crazy” or “damaged goods,” and this wasn’t limited to veterans. They spoke this way about abuse victims, people with injuries, and more. My father always showed that he didn’t want to talk to others about his own PTSD, and this ignorance is precisely why.
The stigma surrounding PTSD is nothing new. One of the most common historical accounts is with the term “shell shock,” which first started making appearances in 1917 during World War I, and essentially was just PTSD. Many times, the treatment for this was to “man up” and get back out into the battlefield. This “manning up” has stuck around with modern-day PTSD, making both men and women afraid to talk about how they’re feeling and what they’re experiencing within.
Sadly, that stigma has extended into non-constructive criticism that assumes that the sufferer can just go back to being normal. Undermining PTSD’s severity and ignoring the impact that it has made on millions of people within the U.S. is only halting all of the progress that doctors, scientists, and other experts have made to treat people that can’t explain why they get sudden reckless behavior, sudden bouts of depression, or just have triggers that they can’t put their fingers on.
For my father, eventually talking about his PTSD with an expert from our local VA helped, but not everyone may have that luxury of having access to immediate help. If one were to search ‘PTSD groups’ right now on Google, the first three outlets that pop up are the SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association) helpline, a definition of PTSD from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and a scientific article about group treatment from the actual Veteran’s Affairs website. There is no easy way to weed through the websites to find something fast, local, and fitting to an individual person’s needs. Just this alone is an indicator that either not enough people are asking for PTSD help or the awareness for it is just being ignored compared to other topics people would rather look at (sports scores, celebrity gossip, etc.).
We are at a crucial point within our society where each of us has the opportunity to have a voice about what matters, especially with mental health. We can create a wave of change for those who are too afraid or self-conscious to ask for the necessary help. It took my own father over 50 years to get the right help he needed for his PTSD, and he only did it because his cancer medicine had finally gotten him so down that he needed to know why his dreams had become so vividly violent again. Someone else may need the help now that can’t hold off as long as he did, and that could be the difference between another life saved or lost.
Whether it’s a veteran or someone else in need of a helping hand with PTSD, the most important step is to listen first before talking, and definitely don’t undermine the illness. Because of it, they already deal with a constant battle internally, so don’t make them go through it by themselves in reality just because you may not understand everything at first.