Why Survivors of PTSD are the Definition of "Strong"

We hear stories about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the news from time to time. Just last month, the Department of Defense issued a final rule that will expand mental health and substance use disorder treatment for 9.4 million military services members—many of whom need access to treatment for trauma-related disorders.

However, many people do not fully understand the day-to-day reality so many living with this disorder face. PTSD is a common mental health disorder that affects about 7 percent of the general population - more than three million Americans each year. In general, people develop PTSD after experiencing or seeing a life-threatening event, like combat, an accident, or sexual assault. Often thought to be only associated with military combat, over 30 percent of individuals experiencing rape will develop PTSD in their lifetime. Symptoms can include reliving experiences – called flashbacks - where the person may literally experience the sensations, images, and emotions that were present at the time of trauma. Other reliving symptoms include nightmares, and intense fear reactions when reminded of the traumatic event. Individuals with PTSD are at substantial risk for high-risk behaviors, as well as self-destructive and suicidal acts, and alcohol and substance abuse. Many also suffer from depression in addition to PTSD.

The condition is particularly prevalent among veterans who return from war and combat. Approximately one in three male combat veterans and one in four female combat veterans from the Vietnam war era were diagnosed with PTSD. Studies to date suggest that, conservatively, 10 to 18% of combat troops serving in the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars have probable PTSD following deployment, and this disorder does not improve over time.

One factor that prevents many people living with PTSD from speaking out or seeking care is the stigma that surrounds mental illness in general, and PTSD in particular, as a sign of psychological weakness. 

There is one consistent variable in the development of combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder: the extent and intensity of combat. When we perpetuate stigma by promoting false beliefs about combat-related PTSD, we do a disservice to the brave men and women who have fought on our behalf.

With fewer than 40 percent of veterans with post-traumatic stress symptoms seeking help, we must start having informed conversations about the obstacles they face, and stop advancing outdated beliefs about people living with mental illness—active duty soldiers and combat veterans in particular.

At The Trauma Disorders Program at Sheppard Pratt Health System, we are committed to treating individuals with trauma-related disorders. Each day, we see firsthand the strength and resilience it takes to live and work towards recovery in the aftermath of trauma.

If you or someone you know has been impacted by PTSD, we want to hear from you. Share your story here.

Dr. Richard J. Loewenstein is a senior psychiatrist and the founder and medical director of The Trauma Disorders Program at Sheppard Pratt. Dr. Loewenstein lectures frequently on dissociation and trauma to regional, national, and international groups. He is the author of many papers and book chapters on sleep disorders, consultation-liaison psychiatry, dissociation, dissociative disorders, and trauma disorders. He has also received numerous awards for his contributions to clinical studies of trauma and dissociation. Dr. Loewenstein is a clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD.