We've all got PTSD

Stories of psychological injuries go back well into prehistoric times - long before these was such a field as psychology - long before there were formal names for many of the maladies suffered by people. One of the most ancient epic tales, the Gilgamesh Tale, gives descriptions of love and also of grief and panic, suggesting that these emotions are fundamental to human experience. After Gilgamesh loses his friend Enkidu, he feels grief. the grief causes him to race from place to place in panic with the realization that he, too, is mortal. The confrontation with death changes his personality. There is an account of chronic mental symptoms in Herodotus’ account of the battle of Marathon, written in 440 BCE.

Humans have long known that real symptoms can come from sources other than a physical wound. Fright and the vision of a fallen comrade can persist for years and change the course of a life.

In World War I, which ended 100 years ago tomorrow, they called it “Shell Shock.” The term was coined by Charles Myers in 1915 to describe soldiers who were involuntarily shivering, crying, fearful and had constant intrusions of memory.

By World War II, the name had changed to “Battle Fatigue.” In that war, long tours of duty combined with sustained surges increased the exhaustion of soldiers and psychological symptoms appeared in those who were not physically wounded.

During the Korean War the term “Combat Neurosis” was coined.

In the Vietnam War, they called it “Combat Stress Reaction” (CSR).

These days the condition is commonly known as “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” (PTSD). The contemporary understanding includes intense psychological reactions to stress or trauma that occur in war situations, but are not limited to actual combat. Those who have suffered a sudden loss, who have witnessed traumatic death, or experienced a variety of other situations can also suffer from PTSD. It is about as common among those who suffer natural disasters as among those who face combat.

A trained psychologist can identify consistent symptoms of PTSD. Modern textbooks and diagnostic guides group the symptoms into three groups: 1) recurring and distressing re-experiencing of the event in dreams, thoughts or flashbacks; 2) emotional numbing and avoidance of stimuli reminiscent of the trauma; and 3) a permanent state of increased arousal. The first two symptoms are often delayed and separated from the experience of trauma by a period of latency. Once they begin to occur, however, they do not abate with time. Untreated PTSD continues to present symptoms that are chronic and persistent.

The condition is serious and it is dangerous. According to a study by the Veterans Administration, more active duty veterans die by suicide than combat. During the period from 1999 through 2010, vert’s were dying by suicide at a rate of 22 per day or one every 65 minutes. That rate has continued to increase with slight dips in 2015 and 2016, despite the fact that there are fewer veterans each year. Not all suicides are directly linked to the symptoms of PTSD, but in an overwhelming majority of cases the person who died by suicide exhibited PTSD symptoms.

A related condition, also noted in the literature is compassion fatigue. Caregivers, including chaplains, medical personnel, counselors and family members can experience psychological symptoms from constant day in, day out, working with those who suffer. The condition is also observed in veterinarians and others who help animals in distress. One of the symptoms of compassion fatigue is a seeming indifference to the suffering of others. The literature makes a slight distinction between compassion fatigue that is caused by a cumulative level of witnessing trauma and actual PTSD which is caused by vicarious or secondary trauma. It is well documented that those who have witnessed PTSD in others also suffer from its symptoms.

I don’t know if it is compassion fatigue, but I worry about the desensitization of our nation to multiple victim shootings. Incidents in which four or more people were shot are becoming so frequent, that we haven’t finished reacting to one before another occurs. It is just two weeks since the bloodbath at the Synagogue in Pittsburgh that left 11 dead and 4 first responders wounded. We have only just begun to come to terms with that violence, but the news cycle has moved on.

I was especially struck with the alarming frequency of such events in our country when it was reported that there were people present at the Borderline Bar and Grill where 13 died in Thousand Oaks, CA who had also been present at the Las Vegas shooting that left 58 dead. To have survived on mass shooting is trauma rough to last a lifetime. It is hard to imagine what it would be like to have survived two shooting events.

The Borderline Bar and Grill shootings marked the 307th shooting with four or more victims in 2018. It was the 311th day of the year. That means nearly one such event a day. Four of the biggest mass shootings in 5 decades have happened this year. We know them by the names of their locations: Parkland, Santa Fe High School, Tree of Life Synagogue, Borderline Bar and Grill. Those four events combined took the lives of 50 people. We are becoming numbed to the experience.

I don’t want to become numb. I don’t want to lose my outrage. I don’t want to not be affected by the sorrow and grief of parents and children and family members. I don’t want this experience to become normal for our society.

I admit that I am not a politician. I am not a policy maker. I spend enough time hanging out with deputies and police officers to know that each incident is studied for clues of how to make a better response. The officer who died at the Borderline Bar and Grill made a textbook response - exactly as he was trained. That response was very different from the way officers were trained prior to Columbine. Well trained response, however, is not prevention.

Prevention is what we need.

In the meantime, I refuse to become numb. I refuse to go silent in the face of such horror. I refuse to lose my outrage.

We've all got PTSD. Our entire nation is sick.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!