Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a diagnosed mental health condition that affects a person’s thoughts, feelings, behaviors and relationships. It can develop after experiencing a traumatic event such as combat exposure, physical or sexual assault, or a serious accident.
Although there are many effective treatments for PTSD, many service members do not seek help because of stigma surrounding psychological health care. People misunderstand many things about psychological health care. These myths keep people who need proper health care from reaching out. It is important service members understand the facts about PTSD and treatment.
Myths vs. Facts
- Myth: Only weak people get PTSD
Fact: Developing this disorder has nothing to do with a lack of toughness. Scientists have known this for a long time and now top military leaders acknowledge it. Several leaders and Medal of Honor recipients share their personal stories to let others know that they struggled with PTSD and have recovered. PTSD is the result of changes in how a person’s brain responds to their environment after traumatic events.
- Myth: Getting help will hurt my career
Fact: Getting help actually strengthens and protects your career. You’ll learn to cope with symptoms to reduce impacts on your performance. Not seeking care increases health risks and the likelihood of acting inappropriately, such as outbursts, making poor choices, taking unnecessary risks, etc. These actions may lead to loss in rank and pay, damaged personal relationships, fewer leadership positions, and ultimately a release from service.
- Myth: Treatment does not work
Fact: There are many effective treatments for PTSD supported by decades of research. Several forms of counseling and medications help most people recover. While your symptoms may never go away completely, you can expect them to improve with treatment.
- Myth: I’ll lose my security clearance
Fact: You will not lose your security clearance with most mental health conditions. Standard Form 86 states that mental health counseling alone is not a reason to revoke or deny eligibility for a clearance. Many factors contribute to the security clearance revocation or denial. Clearances are denied or revoked only in rare cases, when a mental health condition(s) severely impacts someone’s ability to function, and impairs their ability to consistently demonstrate appropriate judgment in safeguarding classified materials. In reality, only a very small number of applicants are denied a security clearance based on mental health concerns.
- Myth: If I seek care, everyone in my unit will know
Fact: The majority of mental health care remains confidential. Providers only break confidentiality in limited cases. For example, if you are at risk for suicide or require a job restriction – such as not carrying a weapon for a period of time – your provider must inform your command. If you are required to report and monitor your own mental health treatment, your command structure is informed – but only those who have a need to know. This means people who aren't in your chain of command, like your peers of co-workers, are not informed unless you decide to tell them. In therapy, usually at the very beginning, providers will talk to you about confidentiality and what specific information is recorded for their records or shared with others.
- Myth: PTSD isn’t real; it’s all in their heads
Fact: PTSD is a very real condition that changes how the brain works and how people react to the world. This medically-diagnosed disorder produces measurable changes in the brain and body after trauma exposure. Trauma isn't a new concept. The word "trauma" was first used in English in the 17th century. Today's well-known term, "posttraumatic stress disorder," was entered into Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary in 1980.
- Myth: If PTSD were real, everyone exposed to trauma should have it
Fact: Only a percentage of people exposed to trauma develop PTSD. Development of the disorder is influenced by several factors including exposure to prior trauma (especially in childhood), ongoing life stress, lack of social support and the type of trauma experienced. Your trauma experience is as unique as you are – as are the factors for whether you develop PTSD or not.
- Myth: People who weren’t wounded shouldn’t have PTSD
Fact: Traumatic events aren't always physically damaging. Trauma can include seeing others injured or killed, helping injured people or handling bodies, exposure to dangers such as incoming mortar fire, or sexual assault. The bottom line: you can develop PTSD without experiencing a physical wound.