Are We All Suffering from Societal PTSD?


Photo By: Christina Berube, BAHS


Sometimes I see so much anger and intolerance that I start to wonder that it may be all connected, and that the collective damage upon us results in a general condition not unlike PTSD.

PTSD stands for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Soldiers, rape victims, and children of wars can all experience this.  I am not a clinician, but I know that the disorder includes features like hyper vigilance—always needing to be on alert for as yet unseen threats—and huge challenges to the ability to experience and hold onto relationships.  I wonder if “nine eleven” was the start of PTSD in the general population.

Many angry incidents are commonly witnessed and now understood to be general practice.  Consider how most drivers today, and I use that term with increasing anxiety, enter a highway from a ramp.  The vast majority assume that “yield” is not meant for them but is instead a command for anyone in the travel lane.  There is a second classification of highway enterers who evidently were never taught that the safest way to merge is to do so at roughly the same speed held by the cars already on the highway.  These folks do not comprehend that the creation of a shared event in time and place in which two or more vehicles made of metal and plastic and weighing a couple tons that enter that shared space with a speed differential of 40 or more miles-per-hour might cause a bit of a problem for them and for anyone else in the immediate periphery.  Both of these highway practices result in extended middle digits, loud swearing, or worse.

The above examples, while occurring way too frequently, are generally not more harmful than a sunburn or a bruised knee.  There are, unfortunately, many and far more serious examples and expressions of this national ill health.  Consider racist rants on facebook.  Reflect on all the violence and death inflicted on members of law enforcement across the country and the equally appalling fatal acts committed by police officers against unarmed citizens.  Consider the so far limited to the Republican Presidential Primary examples of ignorance, racism, and just plain arrogance expressed by candidates who say they are running for our nation’s highest office!  Just when we need real leadership, too many men and women running for office or speaking as incumbents cater to and stimulate the lowest common values.

Let me try to engage you with a conundrum I first considered 25 years ago while working in a minimum security prison.  As a rule, all of us feel sick to our stomachs when we are confronted with a story about an adult sex offender, especially when the victim is a young child, or even the offender’s girl or boy.  We rightly consider all our children as needing love, warmth, and safety, and we immediately decide that anyone who pierces that protection and tears apart the safety and happiness of a young child deserves extreme consequences.  We radically distance ourselves from such scum, setting our jaws and firming our expressions of hatred and condemnation.  We experience mass compassion for the victims.  And it is right that we do so.  But statistics based on massive amounts of data reveal that the vast majority of adult sexual perpetrators were themselves victims first.  As young children.  What do we do with such information?  We can’t excuse the awful behaviors of the violent adults no matter what their childhood history, right?  But how can we legitimize our hatred and condemnation of the adult who was a victim when a child but who has lived enough years to wear adult clothing?  Does it bring risk to how we think of ourselves?  Are we okay with our hatred?  Do we ever stop, if only to wonder if there is a better way, a way that might help stop this terrible and self-perpetuating cycle of damage and pain and destruction?

We have an awful lot of complicated and threatening events around us.  Some, like the destructive images from Syria, are on our distant horizon. They are like satellite photos of hurricanes and typhoons half a world away.  Others are right here, on our roads and in our grocery store aisles and even in the conversations spoken by our friends and co-workers.  Reality is textured and complicated and ever moving. We will have to think hard and work together to best react to such threats.  It is easier to lock the door and think thoughts of simple condemnation—but that only helps the bad stuff grow and spread.  When we act from fear based anger, lacking enough insight to begin to understand why we think the way we do, we clearly exhibit symptoms of PTSD.  Remember that early Michael Douglas movie, Falling Down?  We are edging closer to acting like William Foster, the role Douglas played in that movie, a character who clearly became increasingly afraid, sick and ultimately destructive.

If so, if that’s where we’ve been heading and who we may be becoming, we need to know that there is help.  There are a number of treatments shown to be effective.  Help usually involves support, safety and guidance for the patient in order to develop more insight and self-awareness and, over time, the development of trust.

I hope we find collective treatment before we cross the line like William Foster did—but that was only a movie.

Dennis Marble

About Dennis Marble

Dennis has been the Executive Director of the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter since January of 1996. His previous career work includes non-traditional and adult education and management and sales and sales management. He’s a graduate of Colby College ( B.A. in 1971) and the University of Maine (M.Ed. in 1976), and happily has a daughter and son-in-law who have chosen to stay in the Bangor region.