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Soc Sci Med. 2014 Aug;115:1-9. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2014.05.051. Epub 2014 Jun 2.

PTSD in the U.S. military, and the politics of prevalence.

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University of California, San Francisco, Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, 3333 California Street, Suite 455, San Francisco, CA 94118, USA. Electronic address:


Despite the long-standing codification of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a mental disorder, the diagnosis is a controversial one whose legitimacy is at times disputed, particularly in U.S. military contexts (e.g., McNally and Frueh 2013; McNally, 2003, 2007). These disputes often manifest in a struggle over prevalence rates. Utilizing data from in-depth interviews and relying on situational analysis methodology (Clarke, 2005), I highlight this struggle in the wake of a decade of U.S.-led war in Afghanistan and Iraq. I focus on the objects of contestation employed by public officials, veterans' advocates, and researchers to make or refute claims about PTSD prevalence. These objects of contestation include the diagnostic category and criteria; screening tools, procedures, or systems; and the individuals who express symptoms of the disorder. Based on these claims, I make two key interrelated assertions. First, PTSD is viewed by some public officials as an overly generalized or invalid diagnostic category that is often induced in or falsified by veterans or servicemembers. As such, PTSD is perceived by these stakeholders to be over-diagnosed. Compounding these perceptions are beliefs that PTSD is costly and negatively impacts military duty performance, and thus overall manpower. Second, there exist perceptions, largely on the part of veterans' advocates but also some public officials, that many servicemembers and veterans are not seeking treatment (and thus, a diagnosis) when they experience symptoms of PTSD. Thus, PTSD is perceived by these stakeholders to be under-diagnosed. Paradoxically, some public officials make both claims: that PTSD is over-diagnosed and under-diagnosed. I conclude by exploring the implications of these findings.


Mental health; Military; Posttraumatic stress disorder; Stigma; United States; Veterans

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