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Why Lady Gaga’s stigma-busting PTSD confession hit home for so many

Lady Gaga shared her experience of post-traumatic stress disorder during a visit to the Ali Forney Center for homeless LGBT youth in New York in November. Her comments were aired in an interview with the Today show Monday night, and the inevitable media buzz has followed.

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Why does a celebrity revealing a mental illness cause such a stir? Well, it makes them seem just that little bit more “normal.” They may have everything money can buy — but that doesn’t always include health or happiness. But what’s more important is the awareness they raise of the illness.

“I told the kids today that I suffer from a mental illness,” Lady Gaga — real name Stefani Germanotta — said during the interview. “I suffer from PTSD. I’ve never told anyone that before, so here we are. But the kindness that’s shown to me by doctors as well as my family and my friends, it’s really saved my life.”

The 28-year-old singer attributed her illness to being raped at the age of 19 by a man who was 20 years her senior. She first spoke about the rape two years ago on The Howard Stern Show.

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“When you go through a trauma like that, it doesn’t just have the immediate physical ramifications,” she said. “For many people, it is almost like trauma, where you re-experience it through the years after it.”

What is PTSD?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, PTSD is a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced “a shocking, scary or dangerous event.” What differentiates these people from others who go through trauma is that they don’t naturally recover from the initial feelings of fear and distress. It’s perfectly normal for those with PTSD to feel afraid or anxious even when they’re not in danger.

PTSD isn’t always preceded by a dangerous event; a death or the end of a relationship may also trigger the disorder. Nor is there a definite timeline for the disorder. In some people, symptoms first appear within three months of the trauma, but in others it may take years. Both children and adults can suffer from PTSD.

What are the symptoms of PTSD?

Symptoms of PTSD include bad dreams, distressing thoughts and flashbacks of the trauma, as well as physical symptoms like excessive sweating and a racing heart. These symptoms may be triggered by words, objects or situations that remind the person of the event. To avoid these so-called “reexperiencing symptoms,” the person may avoid places, events or objects that remind them of the original trauma (“avoidance symptoms”). Another group of symptoms are known as “arousal and reactivity symptoms,” which include being easily startled, feelings of tension, angry outbursts and struggling to sleep. Some sufferers may have trouble remembering elements of the traumatic event, think negatively about themselves or the world, experience feelings of blame or guilt and lose interest in enjoyable activities. These are known as “cognition and mood symptoms.”

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How is PTSD diagnosed?

For a psychiatrist or psychologist to consider a diagnosis of PTSD, symptoms must last for more than one month and be serious enough to affect the person’s work or relationships. Additionally, the person must have at least one reexperiencing symptom, at least one avoidance symptom, at least two arousal and reactivity symptoms and at least two cognition and mood symptoms.

How is PTSD treated?

The main treatments for people with PTSD are medications such as antidepressants, psychotherapy (“talk therapy”) or a combination of both. Like Lady Gaga said herself, research has found that a crucial part of recovery for many people with PTSD is support from family and friends. “It’s really important to remind kids who are suffering from a traumatic experience or from abandonment, to remind them that they’re not alone and that they’re loved,” said Gaga. “We are in this together.”

For more information on PTSD, see Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Basics from The National Institute of Mental Health.

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