Drexel researchers examined how the country’s most influential paper, The New York Times, portrayed posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the year it was first added to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (1980) to present day (2015).
Between 1980 and 2015, 871 news articles mentioned PTSD. In their American Journal of Orthopsychiatry paper, Dr. Jonathan Purtle, assistant professor in Drexel’s Dornsife School of Public Health and study co-authors, Drs. Katherine Lynn and Marshal Malik, pointed out three specific issues in the Times’ coverage that could have negative consequences.
- The New York Times portrayals of populations affected by PTSD do not reflect the epidemiology of the disorder. The Drexel team found that 50.6 percent of The Times’ articles focused on military cases of PTSD, including 63.5 percent of the articles published in the last 10 years. In actuality, Purtle’s past research showed that most PTSD cases are related to noncombat traumas in civilians. The number of civilians affected by PTSD is 13 times larger than the number of military personnel affected by the disorder. 91.4 percent of all legislative proposals involving PTSD between 1989 and 2009 focused only on military populations, with 81.7 percent focusing on combat as a cause (the next highest cause was sexual assault, at 5.5 percent).
- PTSD was negatively framed in many articles. Self-stigma attached to PTSD has been identified as a strong barrier to seeking treatment. As such, with fewer and fewer articles over the years mentioning treatment options (decreasing from 19.4 percent of all PTSD-focused articles in 1980–1995 to just 5.7 percent in 2005–2015), it is particularly harmful when articles focused on negative portrayals of those with PTSD.
- Most articles in the study’s 35-year focus centered on the traumatic exposure that led to PTSD, as well as the symptoms that result from the disorder. They rarely told stories of survivors and prevention. Although nearly three quarters of articles mentioned a traumatic cause of PTSD, concepts such as risk/protective factors or prevention were barely mentioned. Risk/protective factors were only mentioned in 2.6 percent of articles and prevention was only mentioned in 2.5 percent.
Drs. Purtle, Lynn and Malik believe that broadening the discourse on PTSD can lead to better outcomes. Some ways that that can be achieved are focusing on survivor narratives that discussing resiliency and recovery, or talking about research that doesn’t wholly focus on the military causes of the disorder.