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Post-traumatic stress disorder

QUESTION

‘The medical condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder has had a profound impact on the development of legal principle.’ Critically discuss.

ANSWER

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is considered to be a mental disorder or illness that is triggered by major trauma, normally an event which is usually not a part of one’s culture or personal development.  Events like crimes involving rape and domestic abuse and violence, an attack by terrorists, a devastating natural disaster, wartime atrocities and a catastrophic accident can permanently affect a person. Even a demise of a loved one, a “normal” event, may trigger PTSD.

Signs of PTSD may arise after the traumatic event has happened or is still happening. They include avoidance of situations that evoke the event; anger and irritability; depression sometimes so severe that it  might lead to violent and frightening behavior; nightmares and flashbacks; depression; hyper alterness; increased substance abuse; guilty feelings; sight, sound and smell recollection; negative world view; fear and anxiety; and decreased sexual activity.  These behaviors might be visible within some time, may be a few months of the trauma or may be years later, depending upon how the aggrieved is able to take, handle, cope or fight against the reactive feelings (What is Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?, 2008). Not every person who undergoes a traumatic event experience PTSD, even the personality and genetic makeup has some castings and effects on the chances of developing PTSD.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is one of the anxiety disorders recently included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Third Edition (DSM-III). 1 The disorder refers to the psychological sequel that may follow a significant stressor (Friedman, 2013). The military refers PTSD as “war neurosis,” “shell shock,” and “combat neurosis.”

PTSD has recently gained attention as a means of legal defense. “Innocence by reason of insanity” forms the main defense under PTDS.

 

Effect of PTSD on Law

The law recognizes that the mental illness caused due to PTSD can limit the mental capacity of a person to act responsibly. The PTSD is now recognized by the law as a factor causing to diminish a person’s mental capacity as PTSD is now recognized by the mental health professionals as a mental illness or a personality disorder.  Such persons would qualify to be judged by the judges, the jury with a different and a bit more lenient, standard than compared to persons who are considered “sane.”

PTSD is now used as a defense in both the laws, that is, civil and   law (LaMance, 2011).  For example, in civil cases, people can use this defense under, a workers’ compensation claim, and disability insurance litigation.  A complaint can be also be made against an employer for providing a hostile and improper or unfavorable work environment or not providing enough with PTSD as mentioned or described by the Americans with disabilities act (Ada).  An employer’s wrongdoing or negligence may lead to a claim of “wrongful discharge” that might include allegations of severe emotional distress, harassment, or even workplace violence.

In criminal cases, an accused person can now take a defense of “rape trauma syndrome,” or “battered woman syndrome” or insanity. The law now recognizes the “battered woman” defense. The above mentioned defenses are all based on the findings of PTSD and are used to prove that the person who committed the crime, did the act under the influence of this psychotic disorder.  The courtroom testimony of reliable expert witnesses can help to determine if a finding of PTSD will prove to be a merit in a particular case or not (Trimble, 1985).

Claims in defense of PTSD have been increasing.  Judges’ thinking about the validity of PTSD has also risen because the many factors involved with a diagnosis make it possible to manipulate a PTSD claim.  Difficulties arise in validating PTSD claims range from identifying the traumatic event, then to prove delayed onset PTSD to and identifying the various symptoms (Jordan, Howe, Gelsomino, & Lockert, 1986).  Also, events which once were regarded as “normal,” such as the death of a family member, are now considered to be potentially “traumatic.”  For these reasons, judges try to find a direct link between the claim and the disorder; an evidence can be admitted by a proof of PTSD, but it should prove that actual relevant PTSD symptoms are present and affect the matter.

PTSD is now widely used as a mitigating factor or extenuating or defense in criminal cases, which is can also be applied to civil law where there are money damages. Since psychological injuries are now recognized as being devastating and harsh as physical injuries, the courts have started considering the claims under PTSD matters and PTSD, in its own right, is gaining popular recognition and acceptance. The psychiatric expert testimony has become more reliable because now the medical community have found how to diagnose PTSD, these claims are more difficult to fake and, when brought to court, these taken even more seriously.

PTSD diagnosis has implications on a variety of legal matters, both civil and criminal. For example:

In Civil Cases: In the course of bringing a personal injury lawsuit, people can now claim damages under the defense of PTSD:

  • Failing to accommodate employee’s under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) for claims against employers.
  • Workers’ Compensation claims

In Criminal Cases: Since a post-traumatic stress disorder can be classified as a mental condition and in criminal law the mental condition and intension holds a strong area under the term of man’s-area, it may be considered as a criminal defense or a mitigating circumstance. For example, a diagnosis of PTSD can be termed as a basis for the following defenses:

  • “Battered woman” or “rape trauma” syndrome
  • In partial defense of diminished capacity
  • A complete defense of insanity

The legal implications of using PTDS as a defense are immense. Further the courtroom education should include the jury, judge, defense, the prosecution as the primary audience. They should know and they must be aware of and must understand the psychological dynamics of the patient’s behavior.

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