This week, Ariana Grande posted a picture on her Instagram that wasn't your typical selfie or self-promotional snapshot. She uploaded a picture of a comparative brain scan and her brain scan side by side to show what her PTSD looked like on the biological level. The picture was accompanied by the stark caption, "not a joke."
It isn't just her. Survivors of school shootings have repeatedly shared stories about the grief and stress they experienced after watching their friends die at the hands of gunmen. Studies have shown that PTSD can occur in anyone, regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc. It is no longer the sole purview of shell-shocked soldiers returning from distant wars. It is affecting everyone from celebrities to school children. So what exactly is it?
PTSD stands for post-traumatic stress disorder. It is a psychiatric disorder that can occur when people experience or witness traumatic events, which in Grande's case was the shooting at her Manchester concert in 2017. She herself has said so.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual or Mental Disorders, or DSM for short, is America's (and to a close extent, Europe's) handbook of mental illness. According to the DSM, symptoms of PTSD include intrusive thoughts such as repeated flashbacks, distressing memories, or nightmares of the event. People with PTSD also actively avoid reminders of the event, such as associated people, places, objects, or situations. They may have general feelings of fear, anger, or sadness, as well as hopelessness. They may have memory problems, sleeping issues, irritability, and begin to distance themselves from friends and family as a result. It is a terrible condition and one that can lead survivors of traumatic events to suffer long after.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, an estimated one in 11 people will be diagnosed with the disorder in their lifetime.
Many more who have it will not, whether it is because they don't want help or cannot afford it. Women are also twice as likely to have PTSD than men. Whether this is because of the pervasive fear and threat of violence women live with, or other reasons, I will refrain from commenting. Causes of the disorder include physical assault, sexual violence, gun violence, abuse, accidents, and natural disasters, amongst others.
Of course, the rumor mill has started to dredge up other sordid details from her past, trying to piece together a timeline of her trauma and gauge whether or not her condition was "real enough." But it is useless and even dangerous to toss around armchair theories like this. Trauma means different things to different people and trying to make value judgments is not remotely a good idea. It also adds to the stigma surrounding mental illness, when sufferers continuously doubt the validity of their condition and may refrain from seeking help because of this self-doubt.
One of the most important factors in helping people with PTSD is to support them. Social support can make a huge difference in recovery and whether people develop the condition in the first place. Of course, someone can have the most supportive family in the world and still develop the condition. As Grande's post demonstrates, PTSD is a hard biological reality that can take anywhere from years to a lifetime of recovery.
As with much of psychology, it can be tempting to dismiss it as a lack of resilience or turn it into a zeitgeist buzzword. But sticking our heads into the proverbial sand isn't going to help anyone. Neither is dismissing the very real trauma of violence by ad hominem attacks describing the survivors as moody-sensitive-weak-immature or whatever term the oldsters like to use these days. Much like the soldiers before them, they have seen people gunned down in front of their eyes while they were filled with a dread fear for their own lives.
Social media means we can no longer turn a blind eye to the pain so many of our peers are living in. So we must face it, head-on. We must support those who are suffering and reduce the stigma and self-doubt that keep survivors from accessing the help they need. We can start by listening to their stories and sharing information. In the words of Ariana Grande's Song "get well soon," "you shouldn't be alone," and you are not.
A good start is talking to your doctors or other health care providers. If someone you know and/or love has PTSD, support them. If you yourself have it, try and find a counselor or therapist to get help. If you feel conscious of being the focus of attention, there are support groups for trauma survivors, and even for the relatives of people with PTSD. The National Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services also has a number that you can call for further information for yourself or someone else at 1-800-487-4889.