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Column: Celebrities shouldn't peddle misinformation about mental health

The reality is that the public and even policy makers often get their ideas from the media, writes Amy Plant.

Amy Plant Counsellor/ psychotherapist

IN EARLY NOVEMBER veteran actor James Woods shared his sentiments on Twitter in the wake of the assault allegations against a large number of Hollywood’s most powerful men.

In a tweet that simultaneously undermined both sexual assault and the effects of trauma, Woods wrote: “PTSD is a serious condition suffered by combat veterans, not some ponce whose joint was grabbed by an actor. It’s an insult to compare”.

His words have been re-tweeted over a thousand times and received over six thousand “likes”. The comment section underneath is lengthy and filled with Twitter users offering Woods virtual high fives and praising his supposed candour.

PTSD should be taken seriously

He’s right about one thing, PTSD should be taken seriously. Seriously enough in fact, that celebrities like Woods might refrain from peddling misinformation about it via a large public platform.

PSTD is not an “either-or” situation, and the assertion that sexual assault survivors can experience it does not somehow subtract from the legitimacy of trauma suffered by a war veteran, or anyone else for that matter.

Now some of us might think, what’s the big deal? It’s just a random tweet in a sea of random tweets, and part of me would like to agree with that. Unfortunately, you need only take a look at the comment section underneath it to see how many people actually agree with him on the subject.

The reality is that the public and even policy makers often get their ideas from the media, and when these ideas are formed about something as important as mental health, it’s important that they get their facts straight. Mass media shapes public awareness and because of his status, Wood’s tweet contributes to that.

Unless we have a qualification in the field of mental health, personal experience or have gone out of our way to read up about it, chances are the majority of our knowledge on PTSD (or any mental health issue) comes from newspapers, films and social media.

What is PTSD?

PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can be caused by exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violation in which intense fear, horror or helplessness predominates.

A traumatic event can essentially trigger our internal alarm system to go on red alert, and send signals to our body to prepare for fight, flight or freeze in order to survive.

Our reactions during a trauma are outside of conscious awareness and therefore not under our control at the time. It can occur through one single event or multiple and repeated traumatic events.

Who can experience PTSD?

The first understanding of PTSD came at around the time of WWI and was initially referred to as “shell shock”, caused by the intense trauma experienced by soldiers during combat. It is not, however, exclusive to soldiers.

One university study reported that the number of civilians who experience PTSD is 13 times higher than military personnel. Natural disasters, violent assaults, road accidents, terrorist attacks and even traumatic birth can all be contributing factors.

It can also be found in people whose loved one has experienced a violent attack or members of the fire service and paramedics.

What are the symptoms?

PTSD symptoms can include hyper arousal (a constant state of high alert, increased heart rate, restlessness), hyper vigilance, avoidance (avoiding things associated with the trauma such as relationships, intimacy, crowds etc), flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks and dissociation.

I often work with clients who, before they became aware of PTSD, feared that they were “going crazy”. It is important to remember that post-traumatic symptoms are a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.

Actors and other celebrities using their position of power to shed light on mental health can be enormously helpful, when it’s done with care. Sharing their own personal struggles so openly can go a long way to further eroding and stigma.

It is also up to us individually, to reject negative stereotypes and educate ourselves. Remember, if you are struggling with your mental health your experience is valid and you are deserving of empathy and help.

Amy Plant is a counsellor/psychotherapist working in Dublin City Centre. She has a special interest in the areas of PTSD and trauma, anxiety, anger management, sexual issues and couples counselling. Find her at amyplanttherapy.com or contact her on 087 627 9243.

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About the author:

Amy Plant  / Counsellor/ psychotherapist

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