Is Trauma Victim Becoming the New N-Word?

A prevalant stereotype of trauma victims is the person transformed into a serial killer or other threat to society. The Oakland Tribune has gone over the top in reinforcing this stereotype with some truly awful journalism. They dramatically misinterpreted a highly-regarded researcher, Bessel van der Kolk, MD, in their article Scientists Seek to Treat Chronically Traumatized Brains.

The article makes rash statements that could help make “trauma victim” into the new N-word, and attributes them to the good doctor. It’s too bad, because Dr. van der Kolk has maintained important roles in trauma research as well as awareness of EMDR, the trauma treatment. I helped bring him to Denver for a conference (a long time ago).

Perhaps the most bizarre fear-mongering tactic in the article was posting a list of local murder victims in the middle of the article, strongly implying that they were all killed by people who were, like a new version of the zombie flick, transformed into murders by trauma.

You’ve seen that the press has been conditioned to point out that mentally ill people are not normally killers. They point this out when a mentally ill person kills. Why couldn’t the paper afford trauma victims the same courtesy?

The article makes it sound as though Dr. van der Kolk is talking about trauma victims. Actually, he is referring to children with serious symptoms that are difficult to save from lives of crime and violence. The newspaper author quotes him as saying, “I think the 50 kids we have are no longer the future rapists and killers of America,” (as a result of treatment).

Excuse me!… are NO LONGER? They WERE? It’s destiny? Although my main beef is with the Oakland Tribune, I have to take issue with Dr. van der Kolk in his phrasing either the pathological behavior or the cure as faits accomplis. I really hope that Dr. van der Kolk is correct about his ability to save these children (and, by extention, their victims), but it will be a long time before there is enough verification of his treatment approach to produce a scientific consensus.

We know that trauma is not destiny, and we know that not all people who experience potentially traumatizing events actually evince trauma symptoms. We need to distinguish between trauma as injury and “traumatic event” as something that, in some percentage of people, causes trauma. These events have been referred to as traumatogenic, to get across the idea that the events do not induce trauma in everyone, much less destin them to rape and kill.

Now tell me, what percentage of elevation of rape and murder is actually caused by PTSD? And if you think you have a percentage, how controversial and defensible would it really be in a scientific debate?

And add to this the matter of acculturation. The kids he is referring to are in areas where there is a strong gang influence; where there are powerful economic and cultural incentives to join a gang. How much of the elevation in crime in that population is the result of acculturation and under-privilege, and how much is trauma? Are the middle and upper class kids that are insulated from such influences also destined to become rapists and murderers when traumatized?

Of course not. Neither group is destined. But the question brings up the matter of race. The areas (Compton and Richmond, California) have high minority populations. You already know how the media and society in the USA and elsewhere paint with a broad brush. This kind of superficial talk reinforces racial and victim stereotypes.

Don’t hire an African-American, they were probably traumatized and will rape and kill.

Don’t hire that person that posted to their Facebook page that they experienced a trauma, they will rape and kill.

Here’s more from the article:

Trauma also muddies the connections between the left and right sides of the brain, affecting speech and cognitive abilities. ‘These things change the brain to become chronically fearful, or to not fear at all, or think the best thing to do before someone hurts you is to hurt them,’ van der Kolk said. ‘It’s bad news.’

‘Trauma is the residue of what those experiences leave in your body,’ van der Kolk said. ‘People’s brains change because of trauma.’ The effects of this are well-known: anti-social behavior, emotional numbness, aggression, violence and physical and mental dissociation — the hallmarks, in other words, of the emotional states of many traumatized youth in cities like Oakland and Richmond.

(At least the author bothered to throw in the word “many.” But to the average reader, what does “many” mean?)

And how dare the author say that it is “well-known” that trauma equates to “anti-social behavior” and so forth. It doesn’t. And it’s well-known that it doesn’t. It may, but in what percentage? Not a high percentage.

And there are bits about smaller brains, lower IQs, and not knowing where you are in physical space.

“Scientists and therapists now believe the long-term effects of childhood trauma are more far-reaching and worrisome than previously thought.” We weren’t worried enough a few years ago? It’s worse than we thought? Really? I haven’t seen any shortage of such concern among clinicians.

I think the new brain science will yield important clinical tools in coming years, but at this point, much of it is telling us what we already know. (As in, “You know that phenomenon we’ve been observing and commenting on and treating for so many years? Now we can point to a place in the brain where there’s less oxygen consumption!”) By over-hyping the science and making poorly-considered statements, we could easily do more harm than good.

I wrote Dr. van der Kolk about my concerns. He said he didn’t have time to post a response, but said I could quote him. Here is the bulk of his response:

I am talking (about) the 500,000 children and adolescents in residential treatment and juvenile detention settings in the US, who are there because of their violence and extreme impulsive behavior. Furthermore I am talking about the urgent need to help these kids to achieve a state of mindful self-possession and executive functioning so that they can grow up to become relatively healthy contributing members of society. Right now most of these kids are medicated to such a degree that it severely impairs their capacity to learn and to develop into well-functioning adults.  This issue goes well-beyond ‘trauma processing’ — it requires our finding out how we can help their brains develop in a way that they can play, understand other people’s intentions, anticipate the future, and experience the joy of work and love.

These children now are at extreme risk to grow up to have both miserable lives and to also inflict enormous damage on those around them. I am warning people that, unless effective  treatments are developed and implemented, these children will not only pay with very unhappy lives, but society will pay with staggering costs of incarceration, medial illnesses and other socially expensive consequences.

Feel free to argue about the political correctness of these statements, but I would prefer it if the energy went into the development and implementation of effective treatments.

I think he is underestimating the power of the media to exact harm through stereotyping. I think the social class and racial implications of some of his comments deserve more consideration. But the way the Oakland Tribune ran with the idea that trauma equals destiny was really over the top, and not his responsibility.

But this is just an extreme example of a trend of depicting traumatized individuals as becoming killers because of PTSD without providing the message that such conversion is rare and generally involves other aspects of mental illness and social dynamics. I hope that trauma victims can receive the same consideration that persons with other mental illnesses do when it comes to media representations of violent behavior, fictional or actual.

For an example of the complexity of PTSD and how numerous other factors determine the outcomes, have a look at a very touching and sad documentary on the fates of Iraq veterans by Frontline, called A Company of Soldiers. Here is a related program and ample additional materials called The Soldier’s Heart.

We know trauma is a matter of degree, and that Iraq veterans have experienced higher rates of PTSD becuase of matters such as multiple deployments and being coerced to commit (or to witness) war crimes. I point this out to remind readers that there is no poster child for PTSD; there are many manifestations and combinations.


Johnson, S. (2011). Scientists seek to treat chronically traumatized brains. Oakland Tribune, 3/30/2011..

Resources for Persons with PTSD

There are numerous resources that could be found at PTSD Forum.

Resources for Professionals

The PsychIN Directory has numerous professional PTSD resources. There is also an anxiety disorders section.

A Company of Soldiers, Frontline.

The Soldier’s Heart, Frontline.

Robert A. Yourell, MA

Robert A. Yourell, MA, has extensive experience in the mental health and social services dating back to 1975. His training includes Ericksonian communication and hypnosis with John Grinder, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing with Francine Shapiro, PhD, Body Integrative Psychotherapy with Jack Rosenberg, PhD, and solution-focused psychotherapy. He provides free audio experiences on his site that include bilateral sound and Shimmering.
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