A Living Nightmare: An Exploration of PTSD in American History

The Problem:

It’s the fourth of July and everywhere in America people are celebrating with barbecues and fireworks.  Well… Almost everyone. For the 14% of American veterans living with post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD fireworks are an unwanted trigger that takes them back to their hellish days in combat (Gradus).  To give some background “PTSD is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event” (Mayo Clinic Staff). When set off PTSD can potentially give veterans flashbacks or nightmares of horrific battle experiences as well as anxiety (Mayo Clinic Staff).  Because of its dire consequences PTSD is a major problem in today’s society that needs to be addressed differently from the currently ineffective way.  One of the reasons that proper care is not given is a severe lack of resources such as previous data to compare patients conditions against, as well as a lack of “planning devoted to the development of a long-range approach to obtaining desired outcomes” (Associated Press).  Another problem associated with PTSD is substance abuse. Substance abuse is a major problem facing veterans with PTSD today and one that cannot be easily countered. The main problem with the treatment for this substance abuse is a focus on only the drugs and/or alcohol problem (National Veterans Foundation).  When attention is also given to the veterans mental health issue it is likely that their substance abuse will return in the future as a byproduct of PTSD or depression

The Reasoning:

I am interested in this topic for a variety of reasons but mainly because I want to find a way to give back to people that helped protect this country and what it stands for.  In such a tumultuous time in America’s history I feel that petty things can sometimes get in the way of actually important causes such as PTSD. I am also very familiar with some of its effects as I know many veterans and am close to a previous Green Beret that is hesitant to talk about his experiences in war.  PTSD is also a topic that I researched very long ago for a research paper but I was so interested that I have always wanted to take it a step further, research more, and finally try and really help some people out.  Finally, if you visit San Francisco today you would be pressed not to find evidence of the homelessness that resides there. One of the common factors between many of the homeless people is that many of them have fought to defend the lives of the innocent and our country (NAEH).  Many I see are using unregulated drugs of some kind and seem to be mentally disturbed, or depressed in some way(J. Tsai). Seeing this made me angry and then wonder, “how are we failing so many people that gave so much up for us”. So, when I heard about this project I remembered my experiences and wanted to find ways to help these people as well as prevent these sad situations in the future.  Because PTSD affects AMERICAN veterans I feel that we can’t just cast it off as their problem because just like the opioid crisis or police shootings it is an AMERICAN problem.  

The Background:

A veteran from the civil war era portrayed with a mental illness resulting from battle

Although PTSD wasn’t officially considered a trauma condition until the 1980s it has been relevant in American history for over a century (NAEH).  This is why I believe that the history of PTSD and what it was formerly known as, shell shock, begins during and directly after the American civil war.  Even though the term was not yet coined numerous veterans’ stories have been analyzed by doctors and medical experts today and with many of them coming to the conclusion that those particular veterans most likely had PTSD or a similar trama condition (Horwitz, Tony).  Especially because of the brutality both on the battlefield and off, there were many cases of veterans that appeared insane being sent to mental hospitals in the aftermath of the civil war.  As I mentioned previously PTSD was a large problem facing veterans post civil war.  Because of the emotional factors involved in fighting men who used to be on your side as well as the physical brutality of the war many veterans were thought to have gone crazy after the war but because this issue was new people were unsure of how to label it as well as treat it (Horwitz, Tony).  One of these vets was John Hildt from Michigan, a union soldier that lost a limb during the war. Because of a lack of technology and medicine he was forced to be amputated without antiseptic (Horwitz, Tony). This caused him a severe amount of trauma but because no one knew how to help him he was sent to live out the rest of his days in a hospital for the insane, supposedly suffering from “acute mania” (Horwitz, Tony).  One main symptom of PTSD is “re experiencing a traumatic event or moment through nightmares, flashbacks and hallucinations” (Van Nostrand). Although they didn’t quite use the same terminology back then there were cases of veterans experiencing “delusions and hallucinations” (Van Nostrand). One of these men was Thomas Lynch who fought the confederacy in Shenandoah Valley, Harper’s Ferry, and the Second Battle of Bull Run (Van Nostrand).  However after all that brutal combat he supposedly “mentally dissolved” and was sent to a mental asylum similarly to John Hildt (Van Nostrand). Because the civil war was so big in scale it was the really the first time that the public realized that something was happening to our veterans after battle. And although they misdiagnosed PTSD as a “cardiac condition [or] strain on the heart as a result of ‘overaction and overwork’” and their solution was a mental asylum the American public began to become aware of this issue (Wolfinger).  A second critical period in the history of PTSD and war related mental health issues was around the time of the first world war.  The first world war is remembered as an incredibly gruesome and bloody war. With it’s notorious trench warfare style, or going from trench to trench wiping out the other with barbed and blunt melee weapons, as well as new deadly innovations such as mustard gas there were bound to be cases of trauma post war.  In this time period medical experts were now categorizing it much better than previously but the treatment got worse as instead of feeling as if they were insane, people believed that PTSD was simply a “weakness” (McDonald). Instead of a heart condition doctors now understood what is now PTSD to be a mental condition and was named “shell shock” by a medical officer Charles Myers (Bourke).  However, although advancements were made in recognizing the disorder America seemed to take a step backwards in the ways they would treat it. Whereas before WWI veterans who had mental conditions would simply be thrown into an asylum and not treated, now the public perceived PTSD as a weakness and decided the way to fix it was essentially torture. 

A PTSD treatment technique from the WWI era

 This kind of though was exemplified by a clinician named Lewis Yealland.  Yealland believed that these men were just being cowardly and that the way to fix this was to quite literally, shock them into returning to their normal selves (McDonald). His method involved shocking the afflicted man with electricity, putting out cigarettes on their tongue, as well as many other barbaric forms of torture. Because of men like Yealland the time around WWI was a low point for mental health following war and can be characterized as a time of little or no sympathy for the veterans returning from battle.  The final time period that I will discuss in this essay is arguably the most important.  It is one of the most controversial wars in US history marred by bloody battles, scandals, and political corruption.  I am referencing of course the infamous Vietnam war that was an incredibly partisan conflict with many possibly unnecessary deaths.  However one definitely positive thing that came from that war was the recognition of PTSD.No longer was it some vaguely worded heart condition or even something to be punished.  After this war PTSD was defined the same way we define it today; “a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, like combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, or sexual assault” (USVA).  After 1980, when PTSD was officially recognized it turned out that around thirty percent of soldiers who had fought in the Vietnam war had someway or another developed PTSD while fighting there (Dembosky).After this there was a total change in the way people felt about veterans with trauma, instead of just trying to blame it on them as they did in WWI people are now sympathetic and try to help with either with drugs or therapy (Dembosky).  Because people could see how brutal this war was they finally realized that it was not only acceptable but probable that these veterans would experience flashbacks and traumatic episodes. So, this war brings us to where we are today. People are sympathetic to the veterans and try to help as best they can but unfortunately there are still many problems we need to take care of such as the use of opioids which can be easily abuse.

The Solution:

The drug MDMA.

To reiterate, substance abuse is a large problem for veterans with PTSD and is caused by the subscription of dangerous and addictive opioids.  However some of these substances known as “Zombie Drugs” by many vets have milder alternatives that can be implemented such as MDMA (Ecstasy) or Cannabis (Marijuana) (Hellerman, Ugwu).  Jonathan Lubecky was an army sergeant until an unfortunate blast accident during a training exercise (Hellerman). He was frequently depressed after this as well as diagnosed with PTSD (Hellerman).  These conditions displayed themselves in breakdowns, self harm, and suicidal thoughts until he finally spent some time in a mental hospital (Hellerman). He had tried typical methods to help him through the pain but finally found one that stuck after just two sessions with the illegal drug MDMA (Hellerman).  He was administered it twice and after felt infinitely better along with many others who had experienced PTSD (Hellerman).  So, although MDMA has negative stigmas surrounding it and it’s usage in American society if administered in a controlled and safe environment it could quite literally return veterans lives back to them from the clutches of PTSD.  

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Works Cited:

Ap. “Only Half the Vets with PTSD Are Getting Treatment: Report.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 20 June 2014,

Bourke, Professor Joanna. “History – World Wars: Shell Shock during World War One.” BBC, BBC, 10 Mar. 2011,

Dembosky, April. “Reverberations Of War Complicate Vietnam Veterans’ End-Of-Life Care.” NPR, NPR, 16 Dec. 2017,

Foundation, National Veterans. “Veteran Substance Abuse – What Do the Statistics Tell Us.” National Veterans Foundation, 11 Sept. 2016,

Gradus, Jamie L. “PTSD: National Center for PTSD.” Epidemiology of PTSD – PTSD: National Center for PTSD, 31 Jan. 2007,

Griffin, Drew. “MDMA.” CNN, Cable News Network, 2 Nov. 2015,

Hellerman, Caleb. “Hitting the Brain’s Reset Button.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 2 Dec. 2016,

Horwitz, Tony. “Did Civil War Soldiers Have PTSD?”, Smithsonian Institution, 1 Jan. 2015,

McDonald  Mary Catherine  Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Old Dominion University, et al. “From Shell-Shock to PTSD, a Century of Invisible War Trauma.” The Conversation, The Conversation US., 2 Mar. 2018,

Mayo Clinic Staff. “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 25 Oct. 2017,

NAEH. “Veteran Homelessness.” National Alliance to End Homelessness, 22 Apr. 2015,

Nostrand, Dr. Martin Van. “Did Civil War Veterans Have PTSD?: Part II – Dr. Martin Van Nostrand – Medium.” Medium, Medium, 19 July 2017,

Tsai, J, et al. “Alcohol and Drug Use Disorders among Homeless Veterans: Prevalence and Association with Supported Housing Outcomes.” Addictive Behaviors., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 16 Feb. 2014,

Ugwu, Reggie. “Veterans Groups Push for Medical Marijuana to Treat PTSD.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 3 Nov. 2017,

USVA. “PTSD: National Center for PTSD.” Effects of PTSD on Family – PTSD: National Center for PTSD, 9 June 2010,

USVA. “PTSD: National Center for PTSD.” What Is PTSD? – PTSD: National Center for PTSD, 1 Jan. 2007,

Wolfinger, Lisa Q. “‘Soldier’s Heart’: Exploring PTSD During the Civil War.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 10 Feb. 2016,


Media Cited:

Buzzfeed. What It Feels Like To Have PTSDYoutube, 6 Dec. 2015,\

“MDMA Drug.”, Inc.,
Otis Historical Archives. “Electric Treatment during the WWI Era.” Flickr, Yahoo, 9 July 2008,
Wolfinger, Lisa Q. “Civil War Soldier.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 10 Feb. 2016,
Begg, Dan. “Vietnam Soldier Suffering from the Stresses of Combat.” History of PTSD,


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