Before we can understand how this all (not so fun information) correlates, we have to ask, what is PTSD? Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event – either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, somatic disturbances, difficulty with intimacy, self isolation, severe anxiety, and loss of memory, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event. The majority of people who experience a traumatic event may have temporary difficulty adjusting and coping afterward but can recover over time. However, if the symptoms get worse, last for months or even up to years, and interfere with your day-to-day functioning, you may have PTSD.
But what would qualify as a traumatic event? What is trauma? Traumatic events, as listed by the American Psychiatric Association, include physical, psychological and sexual abuse, terrorism and war, domestic violence, witnessing violence against others, as well as accidents and natural disasters. Approximately fifty percent (half) of all individuals will be exposed to at least one traumatic event within their lifetime. An estimated eight percent of survivors will develop PTSD – and many survivors living with PTSD experience symptoms that are both chronic and severe.
Within American media, such as film and television, PTSD is portrayed most commonly among male war veterans. We’ve all been dragged to see the countless retellings of the horrific situations people have been in due to political alliances and tensions, so it’s not a surprise that the only prevalent portrayal of PTSD is shown through the perspective of “macho” men who become self destructive as they relive their war-induced past. The majority of resources for those who have PTSD are only for men. It’s not difficult to trace the root of this exclusion, as the earliest information on trauma and PTSD came from studies of male veterans, specifically Vietnam veterans. Once these studies began in the 1970s, PTSD was declared an official disorder by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Studies were then done on the effects of sexual assault on women to see if there was a link between that and PTSD. It was found that women’s reactions were similar to male combat Veterans. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs found that women are less likely than men to experience a traumatic event, yet are twice as likely to be diagnosed with or experience the effects of PTSD. The APA found within a study that women were more likely than men to have experienced sexual assault and child sexual abuse, but less likely to have experienced accidents, nonsexual assaults, witness death or injury, disaster or fire and combat or war. Sexual traumas, APA notes, may cause more emotional suffering and are more likely to contribute to a PTSD diagnosis than any other type of trauma. Women’s higher PTSD rates were not solely attributable to their higher risk for adult sexual assault and child sexual abuse. PTSD rates were still higher for women even when both sexes were compared on the same type of trauma. Women are 91% more likely to experience sexual assault, sexual abuse, rape, attempted rape, and other forms of abuse and neglect than men are. 83% of girls and women have experienced a form of sexual assault by the time they are thirteen and 90% of rape is experienced by women. Which clears the view as to why the rates of PTSD within women are so high, yet they still go untreated or unrecognized.
A large number of women have reported that when they speak to their primary care provider or mental health provider, they are dismissed when mentioning PTSD. Gender bias within the medical industry is quite common and has not gone unnoticed. The U.S. National Library of Medicine has done multiple studies on gender bias and the misdiagnosis of women. The misdiagnosis of women is usually due to the “hysteria” stereotype that continues to plague women to this day. Male doctors will often dismiss women as being “dramatic” and “hysterical” when women describe symptoms of PTSD. Not only does this cause the cycle of PTSD within women to continue due to it going untreated, but it also causes there to be less acknowledgment of women survivors and therefore fewer resources are provided to them.
The focus of PTSD studies, resources, and outreaches have been directed towards men since their creation in the 1970s. Even as new studies and data arise that should be cause for concern, there is little to no change. Women survivors of PTSD continue to live their lives suffering in silence as they have not been provided the tools to cope with or manage the severe trauma that they’ve been through. It is past due time for this change and acknowledgment of the brave and resilient women that live within our society. Action needs to be taken, information and awareness need to be spread, and resources need to be provided. The mental and physical health of women is not subordinate to that of men.