Brutalized Souls and the Epidemic of PTSD

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Details about the crime were all too familiar. On April 23rd, a young man in Sunnyvale, CA, steered his car into a group of pedestrians. Eight people were injured, three of them from one “south Asian” family. A 13-year-old girl was left in a coma, fighting for her life. Before long, reports emerged that the FBI was investigating the incident as a hate crime: The driver, a 34-year-old army veteran named Isaiah Joel Peoples, evidently targeted the family believing they were muslims. It looked like another painful episode in our culture of enmity.

Then, the other night, NBC’s Nightly News With Lester Holt provided an update on the hate-crime investigation, noting, offhandedly, that Peoples suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). That last piece of information nearly escaped my attention, as if it were no more consequential than the man’s height or weight. I’m glad it didn’t—nor should it slide by any of us.

The fact is, PTSD is a huge deal. But we don’t talk about it nearly as much as we should, nor do we acknowledge the enormous impact it has on our nation’s collective mental health. This might be because, although we’ve been fighting wars for decades, we no longer treat them in a way that alerts the public of their effect: We don’t declare war, we just send troops. This opiated state of mind recalls the Pax Romana, that miraculously peaceful period of the Roman empire from 27 BC to 180 AD. To the Romans “pax” meant that no one was attacking them. Ironically, Rome conquered all of Britain during this “peaceful” period. Likewise, for bellicose 21st-century America, we don’t feel like we’re at war, so we lose touch with its consequences—even when those consequences show up in the news almost weekly.

An Epidemic of Despair

PTSD is, in reality, reaching epidemic proportions. The disorder affects a stunning 7.7 million Americans, including not just veterans but victims of sexual assault and child abuse as well. According to NIH Medline Plus, 31 percent of Vietnam vets suffer from PTSD, as do 20 percent of those who fought in Iraq—which, by the way, is where Peoples served. That’s a lot of young men and women coming home with souls so brutalized they can scarcely function. What’s worse, PTSD is highly correlated with suicide. According to a 2018 article from The Hill, “male veterans are 18 times more likely to kill themselves than their civilian counterparts.” Female veterans are 250 times more likely. On average, the article continues, 20 veterans commit suicide every day.

In her landmark work Trauma and Recovery, psychiatrist Judith Herman notes that the study of psychological trauma “has a curious history—one of periodic amnesia.” Since the late nineteenth century, she explains, research on what Jean-Martin Charcot identified as “the Great Neurosis” has seen alternating periods of “active investigation” followed by periods of “oblivion.” Herman blames this amnesiac cycle on the fact that PTSD only surfaces in the public consciousness as a result of “political movements” arising from social unrest—most often activated by the carnage of war. For that reason, some of the best PTSD research emerged from World Wars I and II and the Vietnam War. Between these events, sadly, awareness of the disorder tends to fade as our cultural attention turns elsewhere.

But PTSD lives on in the minds of its victims.

Disrupted Core Brain Functions

Recent research into the disorder shows that PTSD affects the physical brain in ways we’re only beginning to understand. One theory cited in Neuroscience News holds that “people with PTSD appear to suffer from disrupted context processing…a core brain function that allows people and animals to recognize that a particular stimulus may require different responses depending on the context in which it is encountered.” These people respond to certain non-threatening stimuli as if they are in danger, activating a fight-or-flight response: “A stimulus associated with the trauma they previously experienced—such as a loud noise or a particular smell—triggers a fear response even when the context is very safe.” For a soldier who has suffered profound psychological trauma, that response might be to seek refuge or, in extreme cases, to fight a perceived threat.

Imagined threats abound for the traumatized soldier. A Mercury News article describes the torment Peoples endured: “One time, his brother said, their mother found him rocking back and forth in a corner when he visited her home.” More recently, the article quotes his brother as saying, “he was going through his PTSD…saying, ‘I rebuke you, Satan! Get out of here, Satan!'”

More facts will undoubtedly surface about this tragedy. If it was, indeed, a crime motivated by hate, then it raises another, equally troubling narrative in our culture. If, as appears to be the case, PTSD played a role in this young man’s actions, perhaps the disorder will receive the recognition it deserves as an epidemic-level scourge. That eight innocent people were harmed is utterly devastating—even more so that a girl lies in a coma for having done nothing more than cross the street. It is also possible that the perpetrator himself was a victim of unimaginable psychological trauma that may have resulted, ironically, from service to his country.

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