Politics, News

Almost nobody seems to get it when discussing war vets and mental health

Joe Biden weighed in on Trump's comments about veterans with PTSD - but Trump's comments merely echo a greater problem about conversations surrounding mental health.

Another day, another sickening comment from one mister Donald J. Trump. Are there any superlatives left to describe Trump that haven’t been overused to the point of meaninglessness yet? Despicable? Degenerate? Nefarious? My thesaurus is going to fall apart before this election is over.

This time has Trump talking about veterans and PTSD. As part of a panel interview at the Retired American Warriors PAC in Herndon, Virginia, Trump implied that veterans who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder and commit suicide do so because they are too weak to handle the psychological tolls of combat. Of course, the Trump camp is now on the warpath about the media supposedly taking his statements out of context. Here’s what he really said:

“When you talk about the mental health problems, when people come back from war and combat and they see things that maybe a lot of 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. They see horror stories, they see events you couldn’t see in a movie, nobody would believe it.”


Vice President Joe Biden responded to Trump’s comments in a CNN interview with Chris Cuomo on Tuesday. “He’s not a bad man,” said the Vice President,  “but his ignorance is so profound, so profound.”

Now, like many (most?) people, I have some Leslie Knope-esque feelings of…appreciation for Joe Biden, but Mr. Vice President? Sir? Go ahead and call Trump a bad man. I give you permission. Try it out. It feels pretty good the first few times you do it. As I’ve said, you’ll soon run out of synonyms, but it’s healthy to call a spade a spade.

Despite the unnecessary tiptoeing around Trump’s feelings, Biden’s comments echo what the rest of us are thinking, which is just plain bewilderment.

Really, Trump? Vets with PTSD can’t handle it? Seriously? Assuming that PTSD happens when you’re too weak to fight it off is an astoundingly childish statement that betrays a fundamental lack of understanding both of mental health issues and of combat situations. It’s almost hard to be angry about it, since it sounds like something a five year old might say. Almost.

Because Trump isn’t a five year old child, no matter how often he acts like one. And his “ignorance,” as Joe Biden calls it, is something he has in common with too many people. Every year, more and more veterans return home suffering from PTSD. More and more of them are dying by suicide, and Trump is right when he says that this is an enormous problem.

While everyone can and should do more to inform themselves on PTSD and other mental health related issues, it’s scary how little even medical professionals understand about the disorder. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has officially listed PTSD for thirty-six years, but even now there are no medications to treat it, and many doctors don’t even think it should be called post traumatic stress disorder.

Speaking with the Washington Post on Tuesday, retired Army General Peter Chiarelli, the chief executive of One Mind (an independent non profit that focuses on brain illnesses and injuries) pointed out that any normal, healthy human brain would react when faced with a continuous onslaught of horrifying situations and images. “It’s an injury, not a disorder,” he says,  “when we tell a woman who has been violently assaulted she has a disorder, is that really the word we want to use?”

It’s an interesting point, and one that should be on the forefront of conversations about veteran health as well as that of sexual assault and rape survivors.

But just as important that what words we use is what resources we make available to people who are suffering. Why is it that we only talk about mental health issues when there’s a shooting, or some politician wants brownie points? We can’t all work to further the science behind treating PTSD and other mental health concerns, but we can all contribute to the conversation. We can all work to remove the stigma from these problems.

People with mental illnesses are used to being called weak. They’re used to being told they’re lazy, that they just can’t handle it. But in reality, your brain is like any other part of your body, and like any other part of your body, it can be sick. And mental illnesses should be given the same respect and attention as any other kind of illness.