Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

Statistics can Serve to Minimize
the Real, Human Pain of Trauma

I came across a CNN article recently entitled “PTSD in women may have genetic link”. Early in the article it states, “10% of women and 5% of men develop the condition [of PTSD] sometime in their lives.” It offers no supporting evidence or sources for these numbers. I instantly felt highly suspicious as I see so many traumatized people in my practice as well as so many traumatized, but untreated, people in my life.  Such trauma can come from many different sources, including:

  • Neglect of essential care and love in childhood
  • Sexual, physical or emotional abuse in childhood
  • Surviving a natural disaster (floods, hurricanes, etc.)
  • Accidents (car accident, fire, work accident, etc)
  • Sexual or physical assault
  • Death of a loved one
  • Combat trauma
  • Domestic violence by a partner, sibling or other family member
  • Bullying in school or workplace

Statistics can be used to hide the human pain of trauma, abuse and PTSD.

There aren’t really good statistics about what percentage of the population have experienced each of these potentially traumatizing events.  Of these, the best tracked is probably sexual abuse, even though it is generally agreed that 90-95% of all sexual abuse cases go unreported to the police.

  • A report by the FBI in 1999 states that 1 in 4 girls are sexually assaulted before the age of 18.  That’s 25%.
  • The Rape Abuse & Incest National Network reports that “1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime”.  That’s 17% and 3% respectively.
  • The organization Women of Substance reports that “38% of girls and 16% of boys are sexually abused before the age of 18.”
  • The US Center for Disease Control reports that 10.6% of women and 2.1% of men reported experiencing forced sex at some time in their lives.  These numbers skyrocketed in minority groups up to 34%.

It is clear that our society has a problem in tolerating such high levels of sexual and other forms of abuse and trauma.  We bury the painful truth underneath these statistics.  And, such wounds are vastly under-reported.

If we knew how many people suffer each of those forms of trauma listed above and added them together, I believe we’d be looking not at the 10% quoted in the 1st paragraph above, but at numbers exceeding 80% of the population!  While explaining recently to a new friend my specialty of treating those who have experienced these things, she said, “Isn’t that a niche market?”  I answered, “It may be a niche market, but it’s a really big niche.”

Some might be quick to say, “but just because they had that experience doesn’t mean they were traumatized.”  It is true that if a person is “well-resourced”, they can have a traumatic experience without being traumatized.  Well-resourced means a person has many strengths and sources of joy and support in one’s life, such as loving, supportive people who know how to listen sympathetically and who help to create a safe time and space for their loved one for recovery after a traumatizing event.  Unfortunately, in a society where “manning-up” and “putting a good face on it” are considered the best way to deal with pain and discomfort, the simple truth is that having such meaningful support is more the exception than the rule .  As a trauma therapist, I know that very often such experiences wound physical and emotional boundaries, decrease the capacity for joy and intimacy, and reduce effectiveness in ones career.

The toll on the sane functioning of our society of such wounds is incalculable, but certainly enormous.  Alice Miller, in her groundbreaking book, Banished Knowledge: Facing Childhood Injuries wrote,

“Today we have conclusive evidence that this cost of survival not only is much too high for the individual but also turns out to be the greatest threat to all humanity…And we have statistics showing clear connections between early neglect and abuse and subsequent adult violence.  Why is it that hardly any conclusions are being drawn from these statistics?  The repression of past torments and its cost render people deaf to the screams of children and blind to the obvious connections.  Thus the factors so clearly revealed by the statistics are ignored to block the eruption of once repressed pain, to prevent the recognition of the truth.”

As I have written extensively elsewhere in this website, traumatic wounds can be healed with good support and effective therapy, but never by minimizing and denial.

 

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Paul Chubbuck is a practicing psychotherapist in Fort Collins, CO, using Somatic Experiencing® to help people release unresolved trauma. He may be reached at 970-493-2958 or through his website at www.releasingthepast.com.

Your comments, questions, and stories are welcome below. I will respond.

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    • Thank you for this excellent well-written and well-thought out article. Have posted to my FB page and will post to my blog.

    • Thanks for this supportive comment. We’re on the same team!

    • Suzy

      Paul, I also read a stat recently that indicated 8% of the population were experiencing PTSD. I thought that sounded so low, and really made me feel isolated. I thought to myself, “…you mean 92% of the population are normal??” So I’m so glad that you blogged this. NPR had a story yesterday afternoon about depression and the bleak housing market. The reporter learned that humans may be hard wired to react to trauma, such as losing a home (among all the others you mentioned), so painfully because we are hard-wired from our paleo-past to be fearful. 12,000 years ago, losing our home meant being eaten by a lion, and today we may still react that way because its in our DNA. So, I loved your blog and you are Right On! As usual. Thanks for the validation.

    • Thanks, Suzy. I agree that we are hard-wired to react with fight-flight-freeze to threatening events, including losing a house. It’s speculative, of course, but the best theories are that in Paleo times, the threats were more discrete and shorter in duration, such as a lion attack. Either you survived or you didn’t and if you did, then with a close tribe around, there was gathering around the fire, telling the story, maybe a little drumming and ceremony, and all was made right. Today, when you lose a house or a relationship, or are abused as a child, the distress is on-going for quite a long time and, as I said above, very many people don’t have a “strong tribe” around them. Our nervous systems really weren’t “designed” for that prolonged stress with few resources, so we have to take extra measures to survive it and to recover, such as, building our resources and support system, and growing more attuned to our bodies and nervous systems. Such attunement will lead us to healing from these traumas faster than anything else I know of.

      • Suzy

        Yes, I see what you are saying. We need to be as you mentioned in your blog, “well-resourced”. What a great phrase. Busy lives today somehow make that so difficult. I love the idea of a “strong tribe” and drumming and ceremony. Thanks so much for the blogs. Love them.

    • Ted

      Hi Paul,

      Nice job on this article. I agree — it’s clear to me that PTSD is more likely in women than in men due to the amount of trauma they get as compared to the men. Also, I think the incidence of PTSD may be higher than that study reported, but I don’t have any research to back my belief.

      Anyway, great blog entry!

      Thanks!

      • Ted,

        Thanks. You could well be right about women being traumatized more…if such things were measurable. However, if you add in the trauma of beatings, schoolyard bullying, combat trauma, and being told in a thousand ways to not feel your feelings or that you’re a sissy if you cry…the ladies might not be so far ahead of us, after all. 🙂

    • Siglia

      Great article Paul! I totally agree with what you wrote, on how underestimated these numbers are and I wonder what’s the motivation underneath whoever is putting out there this twisted statistics. In addition to what has been already cited by you and others here, we are living in a time when the troops are coming back from the current wars, obviously many of them with different levels of PTSD and as we know with not much support, health wise, specially in a long run. So, it is very convenient to have a statement out there saying that PTSD is not that incident, totally underestimating its importance and need of attention which ultimately takes away any responsibility of taking care (at least paying for) of the men and women who have given so much to the country. Great point!

      • Your point is well taken, about government and institutions denying PTSD to avoid responsibility. I also think (and this is Alice Miller’s premise), that people cannot see or validate in others what they have not at least begun to see, validate, and heal in themselves. If the guys at the Pentagon and in Congress are denying and suppressing their own combat traumas, they will think those returning soldiers complaining that they can’t sleep are a bunch of wimps. Only when we can feel and begin to heal our own pain can we feel compassion for other’s pain.