Donald Trump Hammered for PTSD Comments
Donald Trump has come under fire for suggesting that veterans who struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder are not “strong” and “can’t handle it.” But no sooner did the Republican presidential candidate utter those words than a full collection of voices, from the White House to the Twittersphere to veterans themselves, drown them out with a learned, passionate discussion of the disorder.
“It is not a sign of weakness to get help,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said in his daily briefing. “In fact, it’s a sign of character and a sign of strength to ensure that you’re taking care of yourself.” Vice President Joe Biden was more blunt: “Where in the hell is he from?”
Those comments came hours after Trump, who never served in the military, was seen as disrespecting those who had during a Q&A session with the Retired American Warriors PAC in Northern Virginia.
The stigma associated with PTSD ― that those who suffer from the disorder after combat are weak or unstable, for example ― keeps people from seeking help. The fact that Trump reinforced that stigma did not sit well.
Here’s what Trump said when he was asked about his plans to reduce veteran suicides:
“When you talk about the mental health problems, when people come back from war and combat and they see things that maybe a lot of the folks in this room have seen many times over, and you’re strong and you can handle it, but a lot of people can’t handle it.”
Jon Soltz, an Iraq War veteran and chairman of VoteVets.org, was livid.
“The fact is, dealing with the mental wounds from war has nothing to do about someone’s strength,” Soltz said in a statement. “If Donald Trump took even three seconds trying to understand and respect our veterans, he’d understand that.”
For its part, the Trump campaign says the candidate’s remarks were misconstrued.
Prevalence of PTSD in Returning Veterans
The sad truth is that roughly 20 veterans a day commit suicide, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Between 11% and 20% of veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from PTSD, and about 12% of Gulf War veterans struggle with the disorder. About 30% of Vietnam veterans have had PTSD in their lifetimes. This is a population in need of support and, in fact, the military is working hard to educate service members about the disorder and help them understand the need to reach out for help.
The VA’s National Center for PTSD says, “PTSD can happen to anyone. It is not a sign of weakness. A number of factors can increase the chance that someone will develop PTSD, many of which are not under that person’s control.”
President Barack Obama spoke last week about the stigma surrounding PTSD during a CNN Town Hall. Asking for help is an act of courage, the president said.
“If you break your leg, you’re going to go to the doctor to get that leg healed,” Obama said. “If, as a consequence of the extraordinary stress and pain that you are witnessing, typically, in a battlefield, something inside you feels like it’s wounded, it’s just like a physical injury. You’ve got to go get help. There’s nothing weak about that. It’s strong.”
Here’s what science tells us about post-traumatic stress disorder:
- PTSD is a mental health problem that is treatable.
- PTSD consists of a group of symptoms that occur for at least a month. When someone has PTSD, they relive the traumatic event(s), through flashbacks, recurring thoughts or nightmares. Sufferers will avoid reminders of the trauma and may not want to talk about the event or be around people or places that remind them of it.
- People with PTSD can suffer from an emotional numbness that causes a loss of interest in life in general. Survivor guilt is common.
- PTSD can cause people to feel jumpy, easily irritated and angered. They may also suffer from insomnia, which only feeds their anxiety.
Increased understanding of the science behind PTSD can help reduce the barriers to treatment and increase the number of people who are willing to ask for help. Research shows that cognitive behavioral therapy can lead to sustained recovery from PTSD among military personnel and veterans. There are no medications developed specifically for PTSD, although depression and anti-anxiety medications have proven to be helpful.
As challenging as PTSD can be, the good news is that when veterans get help, they can get better. With treatment and support, many service members are able to live full, healthy lives. Instead of shame and blame, survivors of the horrors of war deserve compassion. Post-traumatic stress disorder can be overcome and suicide can be prevented, but only if we dissolve the stigma surrounding mental illness.