PTSD And It’s Damaging Impact on Individuals, Families and Communities

The Moon Woman Cuts the Circle, 1943, Jackson Pollock

PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is usually associated with combat. However, after the Vietnam War, when extensive research made its symptoms more widely known, doctors then discovered that women and children had symptoms of PTSD caused by violence and abuse within the so-called safety of their homes.

After years of teaching children in schools and counselling adults with a history of childhood abuse, it is apparent to me that too many children experience their home as a war zone where violence, abuse, and brutalization is a ‘normal’ part of life. Children are dependent on adults for the necessities of life and therefore can be trapped for years (like prisoners of war) in unremitting cycles of chaos and abuse living with angry, violent, drug addicted, alcohol dependent, mentally ill, or depressed parents who are often full of self-hate and unwittingly acting out, or reacting to, their own abusive childhoods.

Some children escape this ‘prison’ through suicide, physically running away and becoming homeless, or mentally disappearing into fantasies or intellectual pursuits. Others numb their painful feelings with alcohol, drugs, food or a host of negative reactions like cutting themselves, high risk behaviour, and promiscuity. While some dissociate or develop amnesia to erase all memories of what happens inside their childhood ‘prisons’, others escape the humiliation of being a victim by becoming perpetrators of the violence they experience.

According to the National Center for PTSD in the United States the risk factors for developing PTSD for women are rape, sexual molestation, physical attack, being threatened with a weapon and childhood physical abuse. For men the risk factors are rape, combat exposure, childhood neglect and childhood physical abuse.

Many studies now reveal that PTSD is a significant risk factor for domestic violence, child abuse, problems in interpersonal relationships, violent crimes, incarceration and problems with the judicial system, depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse/disorders, suicide, smoking, high risk behaviour, teenage pregnancies, eating disorders, obesity, diabetes, ischemic heart disease, cancer, lung disease, asthma, poor educational outcomes, unemployment, benefit dependency, and homelessness.

It is no coincidence that the higher rates of child abuse within the Maori population in New Zealand correspond with the higher numbers represented in most of the above problems. It is also disturbing that the ‘National Study of Psychiatric Morbidity in NZ Prisons’ in 1996 revealed that a lifetime prevalence of PTSD for women inmates was 37 percent – a higher percentage than for Vietnam War veterans. A psychologist who works in a New Zealand prison I recently spoke with, said that the figure for male inmates with PTSD would be closer to 60 percent.

Steve Maharey, in his ‘Social Development in Action Speech’, in July, 2005 said, “The growth in the number of people relying on a benefit due to disabilities or ill health has become the single biggest issue in welfare in every country in the world.”

By connecting some dots, a very disturbing picture emerges.

Depression amongst 15-44 year-old men and women is now the second biggest contributor to the global burden of disease. (WWO)

According to Robert Hirschfield, M.D. in his research paper, The Comorbidity of Depression and Anxiety Disorders: Recognition and Management in Primary Care, “the presence of an anxiety disorder is the single biggest clinical risk for the development of depression.” PTSD is classed as an anxiety disorder by the DSM IV (Diagnostic Statistics Manual)

Dr. Hirschfield also states:

  • Patients who have depression and anxiety comorbidity have higher severity of illness, higher chronicity, and significantly greater impairment in work functioning, psychosocial functioning, and quality of life than patients not suffering from comorbidity.
  • Among anxiety disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has the highest rate of comorbid psychiatric disorders, including alcohol abuse.

If we connect the dots between child abuse and domestic violence, and depression, PTSD, and anxiety comorbidity, then perhaps the urgency with which we need to take action to bring peace to our many war-torn homes will shock some of us into action.

John Briere wrote that “it is likely that society’s problems with drug addition, alcoholism, violent crime, and suicide would be reduced substantially if child abuse were prevented and/or successfully treated (1992, Child Abuse Trauma: Theory and Treatment of the Lasting Effects, p. 48).

The reason why nothing changes is that too many of us have either repressed, or are hiding dark secrets of abuse that are much too painful to confront. From my experience, most people do not want to confront the pain of their past and would prefer to sedate the affect in any way they can – often with food, drugs, and/or alcohol, and even with sex.

Judith Herman, a leading authority in trauma recovery, wrote:

“To speak publicly about one’s knowledge of atrocities is to invite the stigma that attaches to victims.

“The knowledge of horrible events periodically intrudes into public awareness but is rarely retained for long. Denial, repression, and dissociation operate on a social as well as an individual level… Like traumatized people we have been cut off from the knowledge of our past. Like traumatized people, we need to understand the past in order to reclaim the present and the future. Therefore, an understanding of psychological trauma begins with rediscovering history (p. 2, Trauma and Recovery, 1997). ”

While rediscovering history and speaking about it is a painful process, not to do this work means that yet another generation will suffer from family secrets hidden under the carpet or in the closet within our homes. Rediscovering history provides a vital opportunity to heal the past and ensure that the “the buck of violence, abuse, and neglect stops with me.”

Learning to love ourselves (developing self-respect, self-worth, self-care, self-honesty and becoming our own best friend) is the key to freedom from violence, for within the security of self-love can be found the courage to confront the past, enabling us to create homes where the foundations are respect, caring, honesty, truth, love, and peace. Such homes enable adults and children to blossom and prosper in an atmosphere of unconditional love.

Surely this would be a giant step towards more peaceful communities and ultimately, world peace.


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