Part Three: 'Culture of Disbelief'

This is part three of a four-part series. This blog entry today completes part three of Suzanne Nagel's observations from her graduate research into PAO practitioners encountering PTSD symptoms from the work they do. On November 9, we will wrap up the series with advice on where to find help.

Thanks for hanging in with me over the last several weeks. In my previous two posts, I introduced my research of the possible adverse effects routine exposure to trauma can have on people working in the public affairs profession. I also provided a synopsis of some of the data I found while doing my thesis research paper: Public Affairs, Private Lives: A Study on the Effect of Combat Exposure on Public Affairs Soldiers.

This week, I will focus on the emotional component to facing you may have PTSD from working in public affairs.

The heart of my study focused on PTSD and public affairs. I asked the soldiers if they had been diagnosed with PTSD, believe they have PTSD or experience any symptoms. Five of the soldiers interviewed said they have been officially diagnosed with PTSD. Nine said they believe they have PTSD or other trauma-based illnesses. 

I started all my interviews with a survey that included a standard list of 15 symptoms associated with PTSD or combat trauma. Every soldier said they had at least one symptom. More than half said they had at least eight symptoms – the number of symptoms correlated to official diagnoses or assumed diagnosis as expected. The most common symptoms were having a heightened sense of alert and reactions to loud noises such as fireworks or loud engines, especially if they could not immediately identify the source of the noise.

About half the soldiers said they don’t talk about their experiences with family members or friends.  And, generally, they don’t talk to each other either. The reason? They fear others will judge them. They majority said they thought others would think they were faking PTSD or that they just didn’t deserve to have it – that their experiences were not that traumatic.

“There is a culture of disbelief in public affairs, that the experiences we have couldn't possibly lead to PTSD,” one soldier said. 

Public affairs Soldiers said they feel a stigma associated with PTSD. The stigma is based on both perceived and actual reactions and it seems to be stronger within the public affairs career field than in the Army overall. Public affairs soldiers in leadership roles also tended to believe they had more to lose if word got out they had PTSD more than junior soldiers. 

Those who have revealed having combat trauma believe it hurt their careers. Those who did not report having trauma believed it would have an adverse impact had they done so. Even those who suggested their colleagues would not treat them differently if they were diagnosed with PTSD said they would not want their colleagues to know. 

One soldier summed it up this way:

“I think there's a stigma behind public affairs because we are not combat arms, because how can someone not directly related to combat have it? Of course, there are times when we put down our camera and pick up weapons if needed, but there's that whole stigma behind it still. How can we have PTSD? How can we be upset by something when we're not actually involved in it? We're just filming it.”

So, that’s just a sample of information from my research. Admittedly, there are limitations to my study.  The manner in which I solicited input, restrictions from my institutional review board on questioning and maybe my own personal bias could have affected the findings. But, I have to believe that the similarities in responses from the 22 soldiers I interviewed suggest some kind of pattern.  

I’ve been sitting on this research since May unsure what to do with it. Speaking about it now in this blog and publishing it on the Army public affairs website is the first public exposure.  But what should I do with it? What would you do? I’d like to hear your thoughts.

Suzanne Spitzfaden Nagel

Suzanne is the deputy public affairs officer for U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. She began her civil service career with the Army in 1998 in what was then known as the 7th Army Training Center in Grafenwoer, Germany. Prior to joining Army public affairs, she was a print journalist in the civilian media market in North Carolina.