The Problem With Trump's Words About PTSD

This week the election drama took a turn toward something close to home for me, when Donald Trump made some statements about PTSD. As with most significant things the candidates say these days, this statement is being extensively quoted both with and without its larger context. I wanted to take a minute to explain the effect that Trump’s statement has had on me and some of my clients.

First of all, let’s be clear about exactly what he said. I think it’s important to consider not only his short sound bite, but also his statements immediately surrounding it. Here’s the full statement, with the usual sound bite highlighted:

. . . people come back from war and combat and they see things that maybe a lot of the 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. And they see horror stories. They see events that you couldn’t see in a movie, nobody would believe it.
Now we need a mental health help and medical. And it’s one of the things that I think is least addressed and is one of the things that — like your question — one of the things that I hear the most about when I go around and talk to the veterans. So we’re going to have a very, very robust, level of performance having to do with mental health. We are losing so many great people that can be taken care of if they have proper care.
You know when you hear the 22 suicides a day it’s a big part of your question. But when you hear the 22 suicides a day that should never be. That should never be. So we’re going to be addressing that very strongly and the whole mental health issue is going to be a very important issue when I take over and the V.A. is going to be fixed in so many ways but that’s going to be one of the ways we’re going to help. And that’s in many respects going to be the number one thing we have to do. Because I think it’s really been left behind. OK? 

I recognize and appreciate that Trump’s larger message is about helping veterans with PTSD. This is much needed, as PTSD is not the type of thing from which many are able to recover without significant help. And we know enough about how to help these days to provide a lot of relief. So it's great to hear a presidential candidate talk about increasing resources.

The problems are with the exact wording. This is not nitpicking. Words affect people. Especially when they come from someone with as much power and influence as Donald Trump.

If Trump’s goal is to help veterans who are suffering from PTSD and considering suicide, then talking about that issue in terms of “strength” and who can “handle it” does not help. It reinforces the shame that most trauma survivors with PTSD already feel. That shame leads directly to the suicidal thoughts and actions that prompted Trump's statement in the first place.

Equating PTSD with weakness is only dangerous, it is inaccurate. As the VA's own National Center for PTSD explains, "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." I would add that many of those factors are situational and have nothing to do with the individual's character.

I believe that when anyone who has the kind of reach that Trump has speaks about trauma, suicide, and/or PTSD, they have a responsibility to speak from an informed place. As this incident illustrates, the message can spread fast and far. It can spread shame or it can spread support, and the precise wording often makes the difference. 

What do you think about Trump’s statements about veterans and suicide?