The following was written by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and will be published later this year, but I have his permission to use the material anywhere, and in any way, including here:
In this age of sensational tabloid journalism, the media can encourage our returning warriors to wallow in a "pity party" by presenting endless reports and exaggerated "news" pieces implying that virtually every veteran of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan (and, by extension, any police who experience combat on the home front) is suffering from full-blown PTSD. This can create dire consequences. A landmark article in the April 2009 issue of Scientific American referred to this in an article entitled, "The Post-Traumatic Stress Trap" ... in looking for PTSD (or, as I call it, "wallowing in the pity party"), we can actually cause it.
Furthermore, the negative persona that the media is creating can affect the seriousness of any post-war issues returning soldiers are having. Coming back with slight mental scars and being met with negativity, coupled with a sense of self-doubt after being unsuccessful in securing a good job, could compound into more serious issues. They deserve better than this! Those who have selflessly served our country and protected our freedoms deserve better treatment than this "obscene bid to smear our veterans."
Here is a letter that I often send the press in response to their queries about the military and PTSD. It's taken in part from an article of mine that appeared in Greater Good magazine:
Today I am on the road almost 300 days a year speaking to police agencies and numerous military organizations deploying and returning from combat. I teach them that there are two dangers they must guard against. One is that of the “Macho man” mentality that can cause a soldier to refuse to accept vital mental health services. The other danger is what I call the “Pity party.”
Interestingly, the very awareness of the possibility of PTSD can increase the probability that it will occur. There is a tendency for human beings to respond to stress in the way that they think they should. When soldiers, their spouses, parents and others are convinced that the returning veteran will suffer from PTSD, it can create a powerful self-fulfilling prophecy.
It is important to point out that PTSD is a very real disorder that affects a small percentage of military veterans (and others who have experienced traumatic events in their lives). But we must refuse to be part of the "drumbeat of voices" that tells veterans that they are doomed to a lifetime of psychological trauma. At every level, at every opportunity, we must confront the media-driven myth that “the war will destroy all the soldiers and we'll pay a price for generations to come.” This sensationalist “if-it-bleeds-it-leads” journalism is irresponsible because it can cause more harm to our warriors.
Sadly, it is not difficult to find people in the mental health community to support the thesis that anyone who kills, experiences combat, or witnesses violence (or any other fill-in-the-blank 'victim du jour') is doomed to lifelong PTSD and, consequently, needs lifelong mental health care.
Mental health professionals must communicate to their patients that 1) they can recover from PTSD and that 2) they will become stronger from the experience. That expectation must be present if there is to be hope of anything other than a lifetime of therapy. If you tell them that they have to "live with it for a lifetime" and they believe you, then you have damned them to a lifetime of mental illness!
(Q: How many psychologists does it take to change a light-bulb? A: Just one, but the bulb has to believe it can change.)
Here is what I tell all my military and law enforcement audiences:
PTSD is not like pregnancy. You cannot be “a little bit pregnant;” either you are, or you are not. PTSD is not like that.
PTSD is like being overweight. Many people carry around 10, 20, or 30 pounds of excess weight. Although it influences the individual every minute of every day, it might not be a big deal health wise. But for those people who are 500 pounds overweight, it will likely kill them any day now. There was a time when we could only identify people who had "500 pounds" of PTSD. We couldn't identify them until they were literally "dropping before our eyes." Today we are able to spot folks who carry lesser loads: 30, 40 or 50 pounds of PTSD.
I have read statistics that say 15 percent of our military is coming home with “some manifestation of psychological problems.” Others claim it is 20 percent and still others report 30 percent. Well, depending on how you want to measure it, 30 percent of all college freshmen have "some manifestation of psychological problems." Mostly what is being reported on today are people with low levels of PTSD (30, 40 or 50 pounds of emotional baggage) who in previous wars would not have been detected. We are getting damned good at identifying and treating these individuals and, when the treatment is done, most people are better for the experience.
PTSD is not like frostbite. Frostbite causes permanent damage to your body. If you get frostbite, for the rest of your life you will be more vulnerable to it. PTSD is not like that.
PTSD can be more like the flu. The flu can seriously kick your tail for a while. But once you shake it off, you probably are not going to get it again for the rest of the year. You have been inoculated. PTSD can kick your tail for a while (months and even years). But once you have dealt with it, next time it will take a lot more to knock you off your feet because you have been stress inoculated.
When I was a kid, World War II veterans were everywhere. They were our police sergeants, captains and chiefs. They were our battalion commanders and our senior NCOs. They were our business leaders and our political leaders. The idea that a World War II veteran was a shallow, fragile creature who would break under pressure was ridiculous. (There were some people like that; everyone knew of a few, but they were rare.)
Nietzsche said, "That which does not kill me makes me stronger." The Bible says something similar many times. For example, Romans, chapter five says: "...we glory in tribulations...knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope: And hope maketh not ashamed." Throughout history, we have understood that bad things can make us stronger.
The World War II generation was the "Greatest Generation" and today a new Greatest Generation is coming home. That is, if we do not screw them all up by telling them (and their families, their neighbors and their employers) that they are ticking-time-bombs doomed to a lifetime of mental illness.
Four Lies for the Price of One
Here is what I believe is the heart of the matter. To harm and destroy people you have to lie:
Lie Number 1: Ignore the vast majority who are just fine and report only on the minority with problems.
Lie Number 2: Fail to report that most PTSD cases are people with only 30, 40, or 50 pounds of PTSD, people who in previous wars would have gone undetected.
Lie Number 3: Fail to report that we are damned good at treating PTSD and that we are getting better at it every day.
Lie Number 4: Fail to report that PTSD can be a step on the path to stress inoculation and that one can be stronger when they come out the other end.
Lie four times over. Lie the worst kind of lie: the lie of omission that gives only the distilled essence of the bad news. Create an expectation in veterans (and their families, employers and neighbors) that they are all fragile creatures who could snap at any time and are doomed to a life of suffering. Get veterans invested in their grievance and in their role as victim. Get them to draw disability from PTSD and convince them that they will never recover.
I want the media to care, but I am convinced that most of them are part of a mob-mentality, a pile-on, if-it-bleeds-it-leads profession that does not care about the harm they do. Indeed, I believe that some of them are actively, intentionally, politically motivated to systematically distort the situation in order to undermine our ability to wage war.
Remember, this is the same profession that put the Columbine killers on the cover of Time magazine twice – yes, twice - thus giving those brutal mass-murderers the very fame and immortality they wanted. This in turn inspired the Virginia Tech killer who also appeared on every news show and on the front pages of every newspaper in the nation. Sadly, this too inspires countless others as the media continues to be their happy co-conspirators in a murder-for-fame-and-immortality contract.
Please forgive me if I have been harsh, but the situation calls for us to be passionate. The vast majority of our veterns come home as stronger, better citizens. But that does not change the fact that the transition can be hard, and they deserve the very best that we can give them.
Yes, some of our veterans will suffer from PTSD and we have an obligation to give them the best possible support. But we also need a balanced, tough love, that creates an expectation that they will get over it, get on with it, and be better for the experience. That they will be the new Greatest Generation
We should prefer to emphasize the positive expectations. Positive self-fulfilling prophecies. Now there is a nice concept. But will we ever see it in the news?