Post-traumatic stress disorder is an anxiety disorder caused by a terrifying and/or distressing event. The subject generally experiences nightmares and flashbacks of the causative event leading to an increasing feeling of isolation from the world around them. Insomnia, nausea and physical trembling usually develop and have a profound impact on the subject’s day to day life.
A disorder such as PTSD can cause someone to act in a different way to a ‘normal’ person. In particular when faced with a situation of violence a sufferer of PTSD can react in an extreme and aggressive manner that other people may perceive as unreasonable. For this reason advising people who are accused of a crime demands a knowledge of mental health conditions.
I recently acted for an officer in the Army who was accused of a serious assault. The aggrieved in the case was a young male who had clearly hit out first but the officer had then fought back causing serious injuries that would ordinarily have been considered ‘disproportionate’. The law on self-defence is clear that only proportionate and reasonable violence can be used to defend yourself, or another, when under attack. The officer had already been advised by one solicitor to enter a guilty plea but felt unhappy with the advice and so we began to explore what went through his mind at the time of the incident. He could not understand why he had acted in the way that he had.
I am not a mental health professional but when we began exploring the officer’s background and his experiences whilst on tours of duty, it was clear that something was gravely wrong. I instructed a specialist Army Psychiatrist who undertook a full assessment and she returned with a diagnosis of full-blown PTSD. She divulged that during combat the officer had not only witnessed the shooting of a fellow officer but also the murder of two innocent children. These events had been the trigger for this disabling disorder with which he now suffered. The officer himself had never been able to talk about these events to me.
At trial we called the Psychiatrist to give expert evidence about the disorder and eventually the officer was found not guilty. We learnt that the other man had made a full recovery and thankfully the officer would remain in post. The Army might have lost one of its brightest stars and society may have locked up someone to whom in fact we owe an enormous debt.
PTSD, like all mental disorders, is not something you can see when you look at someone – it’s not being in a wheelchair or having an arm in plaster. For that reason there is still a fear for those with the disorder that they will not be believed and that they could be ‘making it up’. People are therefore reluctant to accept they have such a problem and often even more reluctant to talk about it.