Over the years, I have written dozens of articles about posttraumatic stress disorder. I have discussed specific topics such as effective, ineffective, and alternative treatments. I have opined about the benefits (or lack thereof) of changing the name by dropping “disorder” from the title.
I have even railed against bureaucratic obstacles that get in the way of helping veterans gain quality care. However, one aspect of PTSD that I have yet to spend much time on is one that is rather controversial and rarely talked about–using PTSD as an excuse for illegal behavior. In fact, it is difficult to find much information about this proposed connection in the medical or psychological literature. Unfortunately, most of the discussion happens within the media.
The Role of Media
Over and over, we are presented with sensationalistic media accounts, which highlight a veteran who has committed or been convicted of a serious crime. In many of these cases, a diagnosis of PTSD is cited as the root cause of the behavior. Countless military and veteran experts are marched in front of the camera and quoted in print. Explanations are provided by these experts, none whom have ever talked with or much less evaluated the veteran.
The media runs with the spurious connection and creates causality when there is likely none. Indeed, it makes for an interesting news story or program. But, is it reality?
Does PTSD Cause Criminal Behavior?
So, the ultimate question is does PTSD cause criminal behavior? I have no doubt that PTSD can lead to a person making bad choices, which can lead to illegal behavior. Irresponsible use of alcohol can result in driving offenses, bar fights, and domestic violence. Theft may be a consequence of drug use in veterans trying to control their symptoms. And then there are cases in which veterans with PTSD were found not guilty of murder and other serious crimes or had their sentences reduced because of the disorder.
It is important to keep in mind that these are extreme cases and very rare occurrences, especially when it comes to violent crimes.
In most cases, PTSD does not lead to criminal behavior. Most of what is seen in the media is the result of a savvy or desperate lawyer or a news channel trying to boost ratings. The former knows that a jury or judge will likely sympathize with a combat veteran who is struggling with PTSD, which could result in a favorable outcome. The latter is just trying to get more people to tune in so they can charge more for commercial spots.
The Real Issue
Hopefully, my opinion does not seem cynical or unsympathetic. I am acutely aware of the havoc PTSD wreaks on the lives of many veterans. Tens of thousands of veterans (and their loved ones) struggle daily because of the disorder. Millions of dollars are spent each year combatting the effects of the disorder. And unfortunately, we lose too many veterans to suicide.
PTSD is a complex condition that we do not fully understand. We know that some sufferers experience alterations in their neurophysiology. Many struggle to maintain employment or find peace in their lives. Marriages fail. And yes, bad decisions that lead to legal troubles are made.
What I am talking about his different. I resent the bogus claims by some individuals (are very small number) who insist PTSD caused them to download child pornography, sexually assault a female or embezzle from their workplace.
In my opinion, it is insulting to those who are truly suffering from the disorder and feeds the stigma that combat veterans with PTSD are unstable and dangerous. In reality, this is just not the case. Veterans are no more at risk of committing serious and violent crimes than the average person. In fact, some data indicate that they may be less likely to do so.
PTSD shouldn’t be used as a scapegoat for unsavory behavior. However, as a psychologist, I’m well aware that some people have a gift for finding ways to shift responsibility for their actions, particularly those actions that result in unwanted consequences.
* This article was adapted from a previous article written by Dr. Moore for his column “Kevlar for the Mind.”