PTSD and Crime: Another Implausible Causal Linkage

Treating PTSD does not alter pre-existing criminal patterns.

Posted Jul 10, 2018

An article in a 2016 publication of the American Psychological Association cites research that indicates, “Nearly all youth detained in the juvenile justice system have experienced traumatic events often leading to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and comorbid disorders” (Bushman et al. in “The American Psychologist”).  The article goes on to suggest that these boys and girls will “remain at risk for future offending” unless they receive treatment for PTSD and associated conditions.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, PTSD is caused by “exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence.”  The psychiatric disorder involves an involuntary and intrusive mental re-experiencing of the event that was traumatic.

There have been attempts for decades to identify a “root cause” of criminal conduct.  Practically every sort of adversity, short of the federal deficit, has been cited as casual.

There are many sources of trauma, such as injury in combat, catastrophic injury from accidents, victimization in a crime, and abuse by intimate partners and parents.  Consequently, thousands of people suffer from PTSD.  In evaluating their subsequent behavior, the key question is what was their personality like before the traumatic experience.  Thousands of soldiers returned to civilian life traumatized by their service experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.  They struggled with symptoms that are typical of PTSD (e.g., nightmares, exaggerated startle responses, irritability, sleep disturbance) but reacted in different ways depending upon their pre-existing personality.  There is no evidence that suffering from PTSD was the genesis of their committing violent or other serious crimes. 

If a person demonstrated behavior indicative of a severe conduct disorder or an antisocial personality disorder before he experienced the trauma, the traits of that disorder will endure, and the criminal conduct is likely to continue. (It is noteworthy that some people who suffer from a traumatic event turn out of be resilient and do not display any psychopathological symptoms.)

Clearly, juveniles and adults suffering from PTSD should be treated.  However, one should not expect that receiving such treatment in and of itself is likely to result in their becoming law-abiding, responsible human beings.