The 180

Media too quick to blame family violence on PTSD

Sociologist and prison poetry teacher Ardath Whynacht argues that when media focuses heavily on PTSD in the story of the killings and suicide in Nova Scotia, it clouds the real reasons people kill their partners and families
Police vehicles are seen outside a residence in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S. on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017. RCMP said four bodies were found inside the home in northeastern Nova Scotia saying the public was not at risk. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

When the news broke of a man who'd apparently killed his mother, daughter, wife, and then himself in Nova Scotia, the media focused heavily on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Most news outlets, including the CBC, reported the killings and suicide in the context of mental illness, with details of the apparent perpetrator's military history, and his attempts to get medical care.

Ardath Whynacht is a sociologist at Mount Allison University who works with inmates at two federal prisons, some of whom have committed violence against their partners. She says the media focus on PTSD was inappropriate and counterproductive. 

We want to come up with a simple answer to what happened. We want to say either that the person was crazy or they were evil. But neither of these answers is true.- Ardath Whynacht, Mount Allison University

Whynact says the reporting leaves the impression that PTSD makes a person dangerous, which is not supported by evidence.

She says "There's a danger that it furthers stigma about mental illness, but I think there's a much bigger danger there. That danger is that, the way we as communities respond to tragedies like this is an opportunity to either fix the conditions that allows these events to happen, or to perpetuate them."

To Whynacht, if the media make the story about PTSD, they ignore what it really was: an incident of family violence. 

She says "I think the most important question in a case like this is 'what leads someone in distress to take their distress out on others?' Because that question is foundational to understanding family violence. And I believe very strongly that this case is an incidence of family violence. And if we want to talk about programs and services to prevent incidents like this, we need to be talking about not only trauma supports for all men, not just veterans, but we also need to be talking about the ways in which we socialize young men to take their distress out on others using anger and violence."

Intimate partner homicide is a significant issue in Canada. According to a Statistics Canada report from 2015, one in four solved homicides in Canada was an incident of intimate partner violence. The victims are overwhelmingly female. 

Whynacht says that mental health services for veterans is an important issue, but that linking veterans' mental health with crime does a disservice to other veterans, and victims of family violence.

"When we talk about PTSD and we frame the conversation in really narrow terms around a lack of care for veterans - and I do agree there is a lack of care for veterans and we do need more - but we end up talking only about him as if he wasn't accountable for his actions. There were four victims that day. And we're talking only about the services that could have helped him, and not for example services that might have helped his spouse be safer."