I've written about post-traumatic stress disorder dozens of times over the past seven years. I've discussed specific topics such as effective, ineffective and alternative treatments. I've opined about the benefits (or lack thereof) of changing the name by dropping "disorder" from the title. I've even railed against bureaucratic obstacles that get in the way of helping veterans gain quality care.
However, one aspect of PTSD that I've yet to spend much time on is one that's rather controversial and rarely talked about — using PTSD as an excuse for illegal behavior.
Time and time again we are presented with sensationalistic media accounts highlighting a veteran who's been convicted of a serious crime. In many of these cases, a diagnosis of PTSD is cited as the root cause of the behavior.
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's 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's 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's 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.
Hopefully my opinion doesn't seem cynical or unsympathetic. I am acutely aware of the havoc PTSD wreaks on the lives of many veterans. My issue is with bogus claims by some individuals who insist PTSD caused them to download child pornography, sexually assault a female, or embezzle from their workplace. In my opinion, it's insulting to those who are truly suffering from the disorder and feeds the stigma that combat veterans with PTSD are unstable and dangerous.
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.
Bret A. Moore, Psy.D., is a board-certified clinical psychologist who served two tours in Iraq. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column is for informational purposes only and is not intended to convey specific psychological or medical guidance.