Does Having PTSD Make You Violent?
Wednesday, October 11 2017 Elizabeth Brico
Does having posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) make you violent? I haven't seen the Las Vegas shooter accused of having posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but past perpetrators of mass shootings have been speculated to have PTSD. Is it true? Does having PTSD make people more violent or prone to committing acts of extreme violence?
Before I continue, I want to offer my condolences to those affected by the recent Las Vegas shooting. I can only imagine the pain you are feeling. I hope that you are able to access the care and support you need to heal from this traumatic event as best you can (Traumatic Events and How to Cope).
Whenever a tragedy involving a lone gunman and multiple fatalities takes place, we wonder why it happened. What went wrong? Our social media feeds buzz with conversations about politics, gun control, and mental illness. Often, we tend to center the mental illness discussions on what kind of mental health problems the shooter may have had and what kind of treatment he did or did not receive.
Research Shows that PTSD and Violent Behavior Are Linked--But Only Slightly
A lot of people seem to associate PTSD with violent acts. Surprisingly, there are not very many studies published about this potential correlation. The ones that do exist tend to focus on combat veterans and violence. Of course, war is a specific form of trauma; people with PTSD from combat may experience it differently than people traumatized by other types of events.
With that in mind, what do the veteran studies say?1 Combat veterans with PTSD showed a slightly elevated risk of committing some kind of physical aggression, which included threats of violence. A smaller percentage demonstrated a history of severely violent behavior with PTSD. Subjects who also had a co-occurring substance use disorder were more likely to engage in violence of any magnitude. When accounting for the substance use, the risk of violent behavior with PTSD was only slightly higher than in the overall population.
My Experiences with Addiction, PTSD and Violent Thoughts and Actions
I'm not a combat veteran, but my own experiences of living with posttraumatic stress disorder as the result of domestic violence reflect the research data. When I was abusing drugs as a means of masking my painful PTSD symptoms, I was emotionally volatile and aggressive.
One of my most prominent PTSD symptoms is a shortened emotional spectrum. Of those emotions I do feel, anger and sadness are the most intense. When I was addicted to heroin, and intermittently abusing alcohol and other substances, I was quick to feel anger. Not just anger, but rage.
I did not plan out acts of violence, nor was I going around beating people up, but I did punch a hole in a wall, for example. I yelled, called people names, and harbored violent resentments toward my abuser and other people who hurt me. I would definitely say that when I had co-occurring PTSD and substance use disorders, I was a more aggressive person than I am today.
I still have PTSD, but my addiction is in remission. My emotional spectrum remains shorter, and I am quick to take offense or spiral into periods of intense sadness, but I am no longer aggressive. I don't spend time thinking about harming others. I am better able to control my anger instead of lashing out. These tendencies didn't erase themselves the moment I stopped using drugs, but as my period of sobriety has increased, and I have engaged in other recovery supports, I have felt more and more in control of my anger.
PTSD and Violent Acts of Massive Scale
Attributing tragic events like the Las Vegas shooting to a violent person with PTSD or another mental illness is overly simplistic. When something like this happens, we, as a society, seek a source of blame that allows us to regain a sense of control. While blaming mental illness for these events can feel empowering to some--after all, isn't it easy to just say anyone diagnosed with PTSD, schizophrenia, or major depression can't own guns? This groundless labeling ultimately places blame on innocent populations. It also fails to address the complexities of these situations. Violence with PTSD may play a role in some mass shootings, but it's not the only factor. The majority of people with PTSD are not more violent than anyone else.
Norman, Sonya, et al. “Research Findings on PTSD and Violence.” Research on PTSD, Aggression, and Violence, PTSD: National Center for PTSD, 4 Apr. 2014.