PTSD – it’s a problem for society, not just individuals

War correspondent Sebastian Junger has written a fascinating article for Vanity Fair about the causes of post-traumatic disorder amongst veterans.

One sentence stood out for me. “Combat,” says Junger, “is generally less traumatic than rape but harder to recover from.”

Although rape is one of the “most psychologically devastating things that can happen to a person”, and 94% of rape victims suffer from PTSD in the short term, Junger says that within nine months, “47% of rape survivors have recovered enough to resume leading normal lives”.

The reason Junger gives is this: the trauma of combat is interwoven with other, positive experiences that become difficult to separate from the harm. He quotes Rachel Yehuda, a professor of psychiatry: “Treating combat veterans is different from treating rape victims, because rape victims don’t have this idea that some aspects of their experience are worth retaining.”

It struck me that this is precisely the case for women who have had traumatic births. Giving birth is something most women look back on as a happy event – and even difficult births usually have the positive outcome of a live baby – so trying to leave the birth behind means leaving behind the good aspects too. And of course, the baby himself is a constant reminder of the traumatic birth.

Junger argues that modern American society may, by its nature, make veterans more likely to PTSD because it leaves them so isolated.

Trauma is less traumatic if you are able to share it with others – which is why so many Londoners fondly recalled the community spirit of the Blitz, despite the thousands of people killed. But recovering from a traumatic birth is something that women do alone, and is often made worse by a lack of understanding from people who imagine that it’s just something you should “get over” or “put behind you”. The cause of PTSD is attributed to the woman herself, and her own perceived failings, rather than the trauma. The support a woman might once have received in the days when communities were more close-knit and women lived near their families is less likely to be available now.

We treat PTSD either with drugs or (more commonly in the UK) with therapy. We treat PTSD as an example of a private illness, or private suffering. But perhaps the anthropologist Sharon Abramowitz, quoted in Junger’s article, is right:

“We are not good to each other. Our tribalism is about an extremely narrow group of people: our children, our spouse, maybe our parents. Our society is alienating, technical, cold, and mystifying. Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that.”

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