Friday, April 4, 2014

PTSD: Misinformation, The Military and The Media

It seems like any time that there is a mass shooting, the response of the media is determined by where it happens and who the shooter is. This most recent shooting occurred on a military base, so the media did what it does in these situations and automatically assumed that the shooter was a solider suffering from PTSD.

Ivan Lopez, an Army Specialist, took three lives and injured sixteen others before turning the gun on himself this week. We don't have any idea what his motive was, and by most accounts he appears to have been a fairly laid back guy. We may never know what his reason was, though there is speculation that he may have harbored resentment at the Army for a perceived delay in his trip home when his mother died in November.

He'd recently moved to the area with his wife and baby and seemed to be settling in fine. He had several older children as well.

As the military was quick to point out, he served four months in Iraq but was not wounded. He never saw combat. They claim he was being evaluated for PTSD and traumatic brain injury but had not been diagnosed with either. He was under treatment for anxiety, depression and sleep disturbances.

Whether he actually had PTSD is something we may never know. All we really know is that he was a very disturbed man who did something unimaginable.

The media coverage of this situation bothers me tremendously, as does the response from the military if I am being honest. They are all perpetuating misinformation, then spoon feeding it to a public that just wants answers to the question of why things like this happen.

As someone with PTSD myself, I'd like to clear up some misinformation.

As a society, we desperately need to do a better job of understanding this condition, how it happens and how it can be treated.

- PTSD can occur to any person as the result of any trauma.

- 1 in 5 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD, though that number is likely even higher due to underreporting.

- PTSD occurs in all categories of the population. It affects up to 10% of women in their lifetimes.

- The trauma behind PTSD can be physical, emotional or psychological. There is no requirement of physical harm or danger.

- PTSD can be triggered by combat or injuries in the military population, but neither is required for the symptoms to present. There could be some other trauma involved wholly unrelated to the deployment. The military and media are both guilty of suggesting that combat is required to develop PTSD, and they are just plain wrong.

- PTSD can be co-morbid with other mental health conditions.

- The diagnosis of PTSD is not, as the military has tried to suggest here, a complicated one. If a person has the symptoms, they fit the diagnositic criteria. Period.

- Diagnosing traumatic brain injury (TBI) is more complicated, and can exist at the same time as PTSD. They can exist separately as well, neither requires the other.

- There is treatment for PTSD. It should be considered an injury, not simply a mental condition, certainly not one that is permanent. The treatment may include medication to treat symptoms and involves intense therapy. I have personal experience with EMDR. 

- People with PTSD, literally, cannot just "get over it".

- PTSD does not have to be permanent. It does not mean a person is irretrievably broken. It does not mean a person will become violent, though it can go that direction if left untreated in some people. It can affect impulse control.

- PTSD is not a sign of weakness in a frail person. It is what happens when someone's brain becomes overloaded due to trauma (whether the trauma is one episode or ongoing) and loses the ability to process those experiences as it is supposed to. Instead of categorizing and storing the information, it stays on the surface and is easily accessed.

- When someone with PTSD is triggered, the fear, pain, emotions of the memory are as real to them as they were when the experience actually occurred. 

- PTSD can cause triggers, nightmares, insomnia, withdrawal from normal activities, hypersensitive emotional responses, being easily stressed, easily irritated, mood swings, reliving the event, avoidance of similar situations, altered memory, anger, frustration, anxiety and depression.

- People with PTSD can misinterpret what happens around them and may process it differently. 

- People with PTSD often respond to situations the way they do because of their past experiences, not because of what they are actually dealing with in the current time. Their behaviors may not seem rational.

- PTSD will not go away on its own. To deal with it, the person suffering needs to admit there is a problem and seek help. 

- To admit they need help, people with PTSD need a society that stops attaching stigma to the diagnosis, particularly those in the military.

- Once they seek help, people with PTSD need a system in place that offers what they need - in particular they need their situation treated as legitimate, and they need resources well equipped to treat PTSD. The military in particular focuses on "soldiering on" and "resiliency", neither of which will help someone fighting these battles in their own mind. The treatment of this condition is often lengthy and emotionally exhausting. It is not something easily remedied or fixed with medication. 

- PTSD, left unchecked, may continue to get worse. In my case, it did just that. Initially, I could function and hide it, but as time wore on and the sleep deprivation set in, I withdrew more and more from normal life, which affected everything else.

- The military is under fire for screening procedures in recruiting, poor detection and insufficient treatment as it is. Enlistees who may have been turned away in the past because of prior mental health conditions are far more likely to be allowed in, and deployed now, which may certainly be contributing to the increased problems suffered by veterans when they return from these deployments. PTSD is just one of the conditions made worse. There are many calling for better screening, better diagnosis and better treatment within the military...and while that hopefully will happen in the future, we are failing soldiers, their families, their co-workers and society in the present time. We've been failing them for generations.

We don't know if Ivan Lopez had PTSD. We may never know.

We have two choices here.

We can chalk this tragedy up to the rash decisions of a broken man.


We can use this tragedy as a reason to learn more about PTSD, anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions. We can use this to find ways to help those enlisted in the military process their experiences. We can use this to educate ourselves about what PTSD actually is and dispel the commonly held myths that get passed around in sound bytes. We can work harder to do better for our enlisted population, for our veterans, for all the civilians out there suffering from these same afflictions.

I'm asking us to do better.

The choice is in your hands.
For those out there suffering, please know that this isn't about what is wrong with is about what has happened to you.

Please get help. There is a way out. xo


  1. Awesome post! Thank you :) I as well suffer from PTSD, so misunderstood and stigmatized (you can actually feel people draw back when you mention it). As a nurse AND someone afflicted with this, I applaud you doing your part to get the message out and admire your writing ability :)

  2. Hello, I've lived through 5 years of my only daughter being addicted to drugs.. Escalating from pills & pot to cocaine and heroin. Lived with terror thinking about what might happen to her, dreading each and every time the phone rang, legal issue, health issues, rehabs, lawyers, death of her friend due to drugs, you name it. Now, my girl is in jail for about a year. I truely think I have some sort of PTSD, but I'm just not sure.


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