Afghanistan veteran challenges the conversation around PTSD in the media

U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Cohen A. Young/Released

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has been in the news in the few days since Sarah Palin, former governor of Alaska, spoke out about her son Track’s experiences coming home from serving in Iraq. She indicated to the media that his recent arrest on charges of domestic violence was a ramification of PTSD, igniting a national conversation about mental health.

Afghanistan veteran Nate Bethea took the opportunity to share his own story with The New York Times. It’s a story that will be familiar to many people dealing with their own mental health issues:

This was the first indication that life after combat wouldn’t be the idyll I had envisioned during my 13 months overseas. And there would be plenty more: When I was confronted with a crisis, it began to feel as if someone had placed a magnifying glass over my normal emotional responses. At times I’d be hyper-alert, at others so brain-fogged that no amount of stimulants could enliven me, and no amount of alcohol could relax me. However, for three years I refused to seek help. I did not want it to affect my military career.

While the U.S. military is actively working to diminish the stigma surrounding mental health conditions and treatments, there’s still a long way to go. Fortunately, Bethea was able to seek treatment, but leaving the military hasn’t eliminated the challenges he has to deal with.

That’s why he’s speaking up now. Palin’s words opened up the opportunity for dialogue across the political spectrum, but Bethea wants to be sure the right message gets out.

That process begins by speaking frankly. Facing up to destructive or abusive behavior comes next, along with the assertion that we are responsible for our actions, no matter what burdens we carry. Post-traumatic stress is no excuse for violence or abuse, nor should it be considered a default association.

The more the media associates mental health issues like PTSD with violence, the more harm it does to the people dealing with those issues. Stories like Bethea’s remind us that those media-driven narratives usually have nothing to do with the lives of real people, and that sometimes, the best thing we can do is speak up.