Mental health struggles are too often shrouded in silence. So when Lady Gaga told the world she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on the Today show last week—two years after she revealed she was raped at as a teen—many appreciated and applauded her bravery.
TV personality Piers Morgan, however, did the opposite: In a series of Tweets, he lashed out at the singer, calling her interview "vain-glorious nonsense," and asserting that she does not, in fact, have PTSD because she isn't a soldier returning from battle.
“I come from a big military family. It angers me when celebrities start claiming 'PTSD' about everything to promote themselves,” he wrote. Morgan went on to question whether Lady Gaga was raped as well, because she didn't report it at the time, tweeting that he “wouldn’t automatically believe anything” she said about herself.
But Morgan's accusations are precisely why Gaga's admissions are so important: The pop icon has created a much-needed opportunity to clear up faulty and harmful assumptions about both sexual assault and PTSD, a mental illness that affects about 10% of women and 4 % of men at some point in their lives.
Gaga responded to Morgan on Twitter, offering to help educate him about why women don't report rape, and why PTSD is "not just a 'military' disorder."
The singer has also posted a letter on the Web site of her foundation, Born This Way, explaining more about her PTSD, and addressing the common misconception that PTSD only strikes veterans. “Traditionally, many associate PTSD as a condition faced by brave men and women that serve countries all over the world," she wrote. "While this is true, I seek to raise awareness that this mental illness affects all kinds of people, including our youth.”
Julian D. Ford, PhD, a professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut, confirms the disorder can happen to anyone. "It has to do with having a life-threatening experience," he says, which might involve combat or any other type of terrifying event, such as a natural disaster, an accident, an attack, a robbery, or a sexual assault.
PTSD can also occur in people who have witnessed something deeply disturbing. The National Center for PTSD defines trauma as "a shocking and dangerous event that you see or that happens to you. During this type of event, you think that your life or others' lives are in danger."
Unfortunately, going through trauma isn't uncommon—but for most people, the initial anxiety and fear that it triggers will dissipate after a few weeks, says Gail Saltz, MD, Health contributing psychology editor and host of The Power of Different podcast. The problem is when those feelings linger and interfere with a person's day-to-day functioning, she says.
PTSD may develop right away, or emerge years later, says Ford. It can be triggered by anything that evokes memories of the trauma. For example, hearing a news report about a sexual assault can bring on a PTSD episode in a woman who was raped a decade ago.
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There’s basically an alarm signal going off in the brain, explains Ford, which is why people with PTSD feel like something terrible is happening to them, even when they are safe. They may become hyper-aroused and very stressed, he says. Or they may shut down and dissociate. "They’re not aware that they’re feeling any anxiety or stress, and become extremely emotionally numb, or space out for minutes or even hours,” says Ford.
In her letter, Gaga described how she sometimes enters a "glazed over state," as she put it. "My body is in one place and my mind in another. It’s like the panic accelerator in my mind gets stuck and I am paralyzed with fear," she wrote.
“The good news is that people do recover and move on, but they do so by facing the troubling memories and emotions,” says Ford. Exposure therapy, for example, can help people process painful experiences from the past. Another treatment, called emotional regulation therapy, "helps people reset their emotional state," he says. It teaches people to acknowledge a PTSD reaction as it's happening, and then refocus their attention on their support system, goals, and values, Ford explains.
The Twitter exchange between Lady Gaga and Morgan ended when she accepted an invitation to appear on his show, and continue the conversation on air. Count on us to tune in when she does.