Is PTSD Contagious?

Friday, January 18, 2013

US soldiers keep watch at the entrance of a military base following the shooting of Afghan civilians allegedly committed by a rogue US soldier in Kandahar province on March 11, 2012. US soldiers keep watch at the entrance of a military base following the shooting of Afghan civilians allegedly committed by a rogue US soldier in Kandahar province on March 11, 2012. (JANGIR/AFP/Getty)

Mac McClelland talks about the epidemic levels of PTSD among veterans, and how it’s now spreading to their families. Her article "Hearts and Minds" appears in the January/February issue of Mother Jones magazine. It's published online as “Is PTSD Contagious?

Comments [26]

A Reader in NYC from NYC

@ Noach: "Reactions to intense trauma vary greatly from person to person. Some people just snap, losing their sanity and any control. As long as one has not had to actually face that kind of test, has not been thrown into that kind of hell, one cannot know how he would react if he were."

Amen, and that's something that other folks often have a hard time getting, often inadvertently. The level of isolation is substantial.

Jan. 18 2013 04:23 PM
Noach from Brooklyn

Just to add to my previous comment about soliders who commit atrocities in war _also_ being victims of the circumstances they were sent into:

I was disappointed that this was barely mentioned in the segment earlier in the week with Nick Turse, author of "Kill Anything that Moves" on Vietnam. (I have now listened carefully to the full segment, even replaying parts of it.)

Jan. 18 2013 02:12 PM
Noach from Brooklyn

@Michael Anton:

"But I was wondering what the Afghanistan families of the victims of the soldier that murdered 18 men, women and children think of the fact that after all this time we are still discussing his mental state rather than executing the guy."

While I certainly agree that more awareness, consideration and sensitivity about the _Afghani_ as well as _Iraqi_ and _Pakistani_ (think drones, which have increased greatly under Obama) victims of these immoral, illegal and thoroughly discredited wars is badly needed, I nonetheless ask you to consider the following.

Do you not think that the acts committed by that U.S. solider, as heinous and unconscionable as they were, might very well have been the result of _his_ being traumatized by experiences he faced while serving?

Shouldn't such soldiers, absent evidence of having a distinctly sadistic or violent nature/inclination _prior_ to beginning military service, be viewed as victims _themselves_? Shouldn't our anger and condemnation be directed at those who _send_ these soldiers into the hell of war? (While remaining safely ensconced, in at least relative opulence, far away.) Aren't _they_ the ones who bear the most guilt and culpability here?

Reactions to intense trauma vary greatly from person to person. Some people just snap, losing their sanity and any control. As long as one has not had to actually face that kind of test, has not been thrown into that kind of hell, one cannot know how he would react if he were.

Jan. 18 2013 01:46 PM
A reader in NYC from NYC

I feel this topic as it's one I've lived for all my life.

I ended up with PTSD after a really nasty trauma two years ago. There was a homicide and I'm the kind of whitebread middle class civilian in a non-dangerous job so this was thoroughly unexpected. But the things that started pouring out were from being a small child with a raging veteran recently returned from the Vietnam War, who was self-medicating on alcohol and drugs, selling drugs to get by, screaming, talking about what happened in the war, which culminated in an attempted murder-suicide. All of this was just "disappeared" and never addressed, which is very much how my family always operated so I don't want to imply it was the only thing that predisposed me to end up with full-blown PTSD, as opposed to the sub-clinical case I'd been. It ended up making sense of the panic attacks, unexplained high blood pressure, extreme touch sensitivity, nightmares, hair trigger startle reflex, hair trigger panic from meeting certain people that were too similar, choke reflex, etc., I'd suffered for so many years, ebbing and flowing, and just dealt with. In retrospect, the PTSD was obvious.

Fortunately there is a good set of PTSD specialists in NYC, but the therapy is not easy.

Jan. 18 2013 01:32 PM
oliver williams from NYC

I just heard your interview with Leonard Lopate on WNYC. You mention yoga and meditation, and LL mentioned MDMA.

Holotropic Breathwork has also demonstrated a powerful ability to ameliorate PTSD.

I respectfully recommend you attend a talk this evening at the HYATT REGENCY HOTEL, SF AIRPORT, BY DR STANISLAV GROF AT 6.30PM; $15.

See also and seek Ivor Browne under Research.

Apologies for breathlessness but time is short to let you know.

Best - Oliver Williams

Jan. 18 2013 01:25 PM
Michael Anton from NYC

Regarding PTSD, I'm sure it exist and is a problem.
But I was wondering what the Afghanistan families of the victims of the soldier that murdered 18 men, women and children think of the fact that after all this time we are still discussing his mental state rather than executing the guy.
No wonder they are concerned that American troops need amnesty from any Afghan justice.

If an Afghan had decided to kill a bunch of Americans, would we be wringing our hand over his mental state ?
I don't think so.

Jan. 18 2013 12:50 PM
Noach from Brooklyn

The cases I heard the guest describe in detail, while heart-wrenching and tragic in their own right, sounded mild compared to cases I have heard about where veterans came back and were horrifically violent toward their wives and children. Shouldn't there be some description/discussion of these more severe cases? (Beyond the mere mention of domestic violence that the guest made.)

Also, shouldn't mention be made that this is yet another of the horrors faced by those who are _sent_ into war that most of the ones who _send_ them are shielded from for the most part?

(Which underscores a perversity regarding the opposition to the nomination of Charles Hagel for Sec. of Defense: Hagel actually served in combat in Vietnam. How many of his inquisitors and attackers have _any_ experience with military service?

Jan. 18 2013 12:47 PM

Is it different than the small child tiptoeing around the parent resting from cancer treatments? Then the eight year old checking the door in case the Alzheimer's grandparent wanders out again? Much of this is not coping ( though all do, each in his her own self-discovered way) but rather adaptation in individual circumstances, with or without labels.
This certainly was a description of the household I grew up in as the daughter of a Normandy Beach invader who was born when he was 40. Biggest difference: everything had to remain a huge SECRET. There was nothing wrong with Daddy for his fretting- there's something wrong with YOU for overreacting and even noticing.
Enormous relief that this is in the open now !!

Jan. 18 2013 12:45 PM

Awareness is mucho grande importante. I would say it is "the key".

From Jerome K. Jerome in "Three Men in a Boat":

With me, it was my liver that was out of order. I knew it was my liver that was out of order, because I had just been reading a patent liver-pill circular, in which were detailed the various symptoms by which a man could tell when his liver was out of order. I had them all.

It is a most extraordinary thing, but I never read a patent medicine advertisement without being impelled to the conclusion that I am suffering from the particular disease therein dealt with in its most virulent form. The diagnosis seems in every case to correspond exactly with all the sensations that I have ever felt.

I remember going to the British Museum one day to read up the treatment for some slight ailment of which I had a touch – hay fever, I fancy it was. I got down the book, and read all I came to read; and then, in an unthinking moment, I idly turned the leaves, and began to indolently study diseases, generally. I forget which was the first distemper I plunged into – some fearful, devastating scourge, I know – and, before I had glanced half down the list of “premonitory symptoms,” it was borne in upon me that I had fairly got it.

I sat for awhile, frozen with horror; and then, in the listlessness of despair, I again turned over the pages. I came to typhoid fever – read the symptoms – discovered that I had typhoid fever, must have had it for months without knowing it – wondered what else I had got; turned up St. Vitus’s Dance – found, as I expected, that I had that too, – began to get interested in my case, and determined to sift it to the bottom, and so started alphabetically – read up ague, and learnt that I was sickening for it, and that the acute stage would commence in about another fortnight. Bright’s disease, I was relieved to find, I had only in a modified form, and, so far as that was concerned, I might live for years. Cholera I had, with severe complications; and diphtheria I seemed to have been born with. I plodded conscientiously through the twenty-six letters, and the only malady I could conclude I had not got was housemaid’s knee.

Jan. 18 2013 12:43 PM
chris from li ny

My friend's mom had old age mental issues but was able to take care of herself. Then 9-11 happened, a week of watching TV killed her brain. Within days full blown Alzheimers. The shock aged her brain 10 years.

Jan. 18 2013 12:40 PM
fuva from harlemworld

I hear you, sanych. The temptation to paint with a broad brush here must be resisted.

(And I see I was on cue...:-))

Jan. 18 2013 12:39 PM

What about PTSD related poor employment practices on the employees? There is a significant cost, both financial and emotional, due to harassment and retaliation by employers for reporting violations of civil rights and policies.

Jan. 18 2013 12:35 PM
RJ from prospect hts

I realize that there's little enough consciousness about PTSD etc. in the U.S. But the mention of the 9/11 impact reminds me of people who are constantly living with these kinds of calamaties around the world--it's great to swoop in with humanitarian aid in the moments after, but are there enough mental health professionals worldwide to help those "living" in violent situations?

Jan. 18 2013 12:35 PM
anonyme - on ride side, Energy Psychology

THese modalities work!!!

Jan. 18 2013 12:35 PM
Eliz Beckmann from columbia mo

I was at ground zero

Jan. 18 2013 12:32 PM
Megan from Brooklyn

I don't know about it being contagious, but I do find that awareness of PTSD helps people understand it's potential presence in their own life. A friend recently went through PTSD treatment which persisted in her life after 9/11. She had been at Ground Zero and has suffered a number of PTSD related effects since then, some of which have been very serious. Her experience made me realize that we are all affected by trauma at some point in our lives, yet society always asks us to pick ourselves up by our bootstraps and push through it, which is not always possible - after witnessing a murder, experiencing a serious illness or going to war. Our personal backgrounds also play into it and sometimes seem to predispose us to PTSD - those of us with abusive families, alcoholism in the family, etc... Her experience just made me realize that the Iraq and Afghanistan vets have performed a service to society by raising a light to the issue of how we collectively treat trauma. My hope is that we develop more compassion for people who are traumatized.

Jan. 18 2013 12:31 PM
anon from NY

To Holocaust PTSD: my mothers grandmother was shipped off to Auschwitz and she was born in occupied France. That trauma manifests itself with a bread-roller over my head every time I suggest she is traumatized.

Jan. 18 2013 12:28 PM
Andrea from NYC

As I'm listening to the array of admittedly meager resources we have in this country to treat PTSD, I'm thinking of all the PTSD in the war zones around the world. We have a global issue of PTSD and the secondary fallout and in most places absolutely no resources to deal with it.

Jan. 18 2013 12:27 PM

If everything is PTSD, then nothing is PTSD.

I am surprised no one mentioned slavery...

Where is fuva when you need her?

Jan. 18 2013 12:23 PM
fuva from harlemworld

Wow, jgarbuz from Queens, apropos and well said. Except, not "virtually" to this day. Literally.
I've long found it curious that increased understanding of trauma is never applied to the black experience. The Holocaust, yes. But not generations of anti-black terror. And looks like it won't be discussed here...This is cognitive dissonance...
"If you don't treat it, it never goes away"...

Jan. 18 2013 12:22 PM
mj from hastings

MY question is: can one person and another person who served right next to him (with same combat exp.) come home and one has PTSD and the other does not? What is PTSD then?

Jan. 18 2013 12:20 PM

PTSD - I think we all have it! I was diagnosed at an Al-Anon meeting by a forensic psychiatrist who worked at Rikers - All the wars we are descended from - this should be obvious to all of us. What a load of crap - secondary PTSD!!! It's all trauma and we all need ways to cope with it.

We have several really good ones and not so costly - as usual the people figure it out for themselves because our industrial thinking and clueless medical system are so slow to catch on.

There are people who see the mind and body as attached and can do remarkable things - all the while empowering the patient to participate - no meds needed. (Two big names if you are interested are David Feinstein PhD, Gary Craig (EFT founder) and Tapas Fleming (tat

Thing is nobody will pay for research - who needs research when you can try things yourself and see results! There are no drugs involved of any of those three approaches.

Jan. 18 2013 12:18 PM
John A

Seen years ago on an a WNYC comment page: "As a second-generation Holocaust survivor...". I guess it resonated with me as my family had its large trauma, the loss of a child before I was born, something I had to live through too.

Jan. 18 2013 12:17 PM
ElizBeckmann from Columbia MO

Now divorced due to PTSD from 9/11 I

Jan. 18 2013 12:15 PM
MichaelB from Morningside Heights

I was going to mention the children of Holocaust survivors, a group to which I and my siblings belong.

It was a presence in our home always.

Jan. 18 2013 12:14 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

I know personally as a child of Holocaust survivors, that it is impossible to completely shield children or loved ones from the trauma that war imbues. But even the trauma of slavery was passed down in the black community virtually to this day. I do believe that trauma does affect the collective consciousness of the group, even if not directly exposed to the events themselves. It sometimes takes generations, if forever, to recede.

Jan. 18 2013 12:01 PM

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