This is the second post in the series Invisible Illnesses. To read the first post, click here.
Humans are fearfully and wonderfully made. We are complex beings, an intricate tapestry of mind, body, and soul. Advances in research continually enhance our understanding of the mind-body connection, yet scientists and laymen alike continue to minimize the power of this perplexing organ.
As Christians, we believe in the unseen. We have confidence in the power of God to heal. We know the war of the mind rages daily. The bitter irony, then, is how we treat those with “unseen” mental injuries as though they are weak-minded:
“If you just had more faith, you could be healed.”
“You need to pray more. That will fix your depression.”
“That guy simply needs to stop making excuses for his PTSD.”
As if it’s so simple…
If I were to say, “That cancer patient is downright lazy. He needs to get on his knees, start praying and have more faith in God’s power to heal,” what would happen? Death threats. Accusations of insanity. Disdain. Derision.
God, in His infinite wisdom, does not always give us healing. It might be our time to go home and be with the Lord. It could be our “thorn in the flesh” training. Yes, faith can move mountains; yes, prayer is powerful; but God’s will is the final word. Sometimes the answer is “no,” or “not yet.”
The world we live in is plagued by diseases of all kinds. We conquer one outbreak only to be assaulted by another. Tuberculosis used to be the great killer, now it’s cancer. People once feared Polio, now it’s autism. We strive endlessly to circumvent disease, but our world has been the realm of hardship since the first sin.
Mental illnesses are invisible diseases, often created by physical stimuli, but we (particularly Christians) treat them as though they are self-inflicted wounds, controlled by our will alone. We completely ignore the physiochemical side of the issue.
It is far too complex be treated so lightly.
The #1 Myth of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
During the last election, I numbed to the cringe-worthy statements from the-candidates-whom-nobody-wanted. Then, out of the blue, Mr. Trump said something in total ignorance—and I was no longer numb:
“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 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. They see horror stories, they see events you couldn’t see in a movie, nobody would believe it …”
Donald Trump, October 3, 2016 (emphasis mine)
Open mouth, insert foot.
Mr. Trump merely stated what most people already believe—PTSD only happens to the weak.
That would be Myth #1.
PTSD results from traumatic stress, hence the name. Furthermore, nobody has been able to crack the code of the human brain to determine why one person gets one set of symptoms and another person does not. One thing the experts all agree on is this: PTSD is NOT the result of weakness.
The U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) states: “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.”
The VA estimates that eleven to twenty percent of veterans from Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have PTSD. They also estimated the number of Vietnam Veterans with PTSD is only slightly higher—about fifteen percent. I’m a little skeptical of their numbers because most people—men in particular—are reluctant to admit there is a problem due to the social stigma surrounding PTSD. Furthermore, the needs of veterans returning home from Vietnam were ignored (read: treated like garbage) and so it is likely that number is also inaccurate.
What I am about to state in this paragraph is purely my opinion, based on extensive observation: PTSD—particularly when manifested in military veterans, law enforcement, and first responders—is a sign of deep courage, conscience, and compassion. We were designed to desire justice and mercy simultaneously. It is not in our nature to find joy in death and destruction. If one sees rampant devastation and remains unmoved, something is seriously wrong.
We watch movies and TV shows of people going through trauma. After each life-threatening situation, they move on with life as though unfazed. Consciously or subconsciously, we consider these characters tough. In real life, we would think they were sick and twisted at best. One cannot be confronted with such high, unremitting levels of violence and remain unaffected, unless there is some underlying sociopathy. We cringe at the sick humor of doctors, nurses, soldiers, and cops, thinking them to be callous. They are not unhinged—humor is their coping mechanism. They are deeply affected by what they see day after day, month after month, year after year.
People with PTSD are not weak, and Christians in particular need to grasp this truth.
Some Facts About PTSD
According to the DSM-5, the following is the Stressor Criterion:
The person was exposed to: death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence, as follows: (one required)
- Direct exposure.
- Witnessing, in person.
- Indirectly, by learning that a close relative or close friend was exposed to trauma. If the event involved actual or threatened death, it must have been violent or accidental.
- Repeated or extreme indirect exposure to aversive details of the event(s), usually in the course of professional duties (e.g., first responders, collecting body parts; professionals repeatedly exposed to details of child abuse). This does not include indirect non-professional exposure through electronic media, television, movies, or pictures.
Symptoms of PTSD:
- Irritable or aggressive behavior
- Self-destructive or reckless behavior
- Exaggerated startle response
- Problems in concentration
- Sleep disturbance
- Recurrent, involuntary, and intrusive memories.
- Traumatic nightmares.
- Dissociative reactions (e.g., flashbacks) which may occur on a continuum from brief episodes to complete loss of consciousness.
- Intense or prolonged distress after exposure to traumatic reminders.
- Marked physiologic reactivity after exposure to trauma-related stimuli.
The biggest obstacle to recovering or coping with PTSD is failure to get treatment.
What do we do if we have a bacterial infection? We usually go to the doctor and get an antibiotic. If we get in a car accident with severe injuries, we don’t stand around bleeding. We go to the hospital and get help! PTSD needs proper treatment just like any other bodily trauma.
What is proper treatment?
I am not a doctor, so I would first advise you to find a medical professional with specific experience in counseling trauma victims. A marriage and family therapist is not usually an expert in this area. Be specific in your search. You wouldn’t see a gastroenterologist for an eye problem. Don’t see the wrong kind of therapist for this either.
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is an emerging form of therapy making waves in the mental health industry. There is, of course, disagreement about it’s effectiveness, but I’ve heard from both professionals and patients of it’s amazing results.
Other forms of treatment include (but are not limited to): Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, medication, family counseling (for the family affected by PTSD), and psychodynamic psychotherapy. Click the link to read more in-depth.
If you are a war veteran suffering from PTSD, I highly recommend getting in touch with Headstrong, a non-profit organization created by Veterans committed to helping fellow veterans recover from PTSD by getting them connected with EMDR therapists. I connected with them last year to inquire about help for my best friend, but since his PTSD wasn’t connected with his military time, they couldn’t help. However, the person I spoke to—a vet who had personally gone through this therapy and recovered—went out of his way to get me the names of clinics using EMDR therapy that he had personally vetted.
Don’t leave God out
We pray for healing of our illnesses, we pray for help with our struggles, and we ought to pray for recovery from mental illness with the same conviction. If you have a family member suffering from PTSD, you also need prayer and support. Give your pain over to the Lord—He is a safe harbor in the storm. Like any illness, we pray for healing, good treatment, and wisdom for the doctor. We pray for God to do His work and we also do what is within our power to do.
If you or a loved one is suffering from PTSD, take heart. There is hope for you to lead a happy and full life. Do not succumb to societal pressure to ignore the problem. Get the treatment you need and lean on God for support.