May 3, 2016

PTSD isn’t a He. #FacesOfPTSD

Google search screenshot: via Cissy White

How come when I googled “PTSD” a few weeks back, this is what I got?

Where are the women?

The children?

The civilian men with PTSD?

The missing images are striking—and troubling, considering the facts: “Women are more than twice as likely to develop PTSD than men (10% for women and 4% for men).” ~ Department of Veteran’s Affairs 

Twice as likely—but looking at the search images, one might think women don’t get post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at all.

I actually got an image of a cat that might have PTSD before one woman was shown with PTSD.

I love cats—but really?

Bing and Yahoo weren’t much better…something is missing from the way data is culled and analyzed or crawled. When it comes to PTSD, women shouldn’t be an after thought. We must acknowledge other causes of PTSD, such as sexual violence.

In The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, David J. Morris reported that “45.9 percent of female rape victims suffered from persistent PTSD”—information he got from a New England Journal of Medicine study. He also says, “The governing principle with social traumas seems to be that the greater the intimacy, the greater the “dose [of traumatic stress].”

So why are there no images of abused children, domestic violence, accidents and disasters—yet so many of military service and soldiers?

War isn’t the only high dose causing intimacy trauma. Women suffer at higher rates than men, but are excluded from related images.

It’s important to see reality reflected back, and currently, it’s not.

How come?

This is not a tiny or irrelevant fact. PTSD a serious medical diagnosis with enormous physical and emotional impact. It’s a social issue as well. Why are we unwilling to see the many causes and faces of PTSD?

We all battle with misconceptions. I know I did.

I was diagnosed with PTSD over 25 years ago. My first question was, “Isn’t that what veterans get?” I knew because my father was a homeless Vietnam veteran.

This misconception lives on today—and as someone who has lived my entire adult life with post-traumatic stress, I know how serious this diagnosis can be. It can hinder my ability to work, concentrate, sleep, trust, be present and feel safe in my own skin and psyche.

I’m not alone.

“About 10 of every 100 (or 10%) of women develop PTSD sometime in their lives, compared with about 4 of every 100 (or 4%) of men,” according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

But search engines show few or no women at all with this diagnosis.

Misconceptions are not benign. They are dangerous and can make people who are already post-traumatically stressed, feel more isolated, marginalized and alone.

We already suffer with fear, anxiety, depression, nightmares, flashbacks and numbness. Depending on the cause of our trauma, we might face long-term health consequences and early mortality as well. For example, for those with six or more adversities in early childhood, the lifespan is shorter by an average of nineteen years. That’s almost two decades.

(Read more about adverse childhood experiences (ACES) at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website or by visiting ACEsTooHigh and ACEsConnection.)

Here’s the good news: May is Mental Health Awareness month, and people with PTSD from various causes are banding together to make change. We are spearheading a no-money-needed campaign.

It’s called: #FacesOfPTSD

Starting May 6th, we are flooding the internet with images of women and civilian men with PTSD. We are going to see how long it takes until Google search results depict women as well.

We are insisting that search engines and society not wipe out or exclude the reality of women with trauma, children with trauma and civilian men.

PTSD has many causes. A World Health Organization study grouped the traumatic experiences of respondents from 21 countries as follows:

  • (21.8%) witnessing violence
  • (18.8%) experiencing interpersonal violence
  • (17.7%) accidents
  • (16.2%) exposure to war (16.2%)
  • (12.5%) trauma to a loved one

War is not the primary cause of traumatic stress.

Google images continue to minimize the experience of millions, as well as affirming the reality of some soldiers and veterans. Current popular images are weighted in a way that distorts reality. There are lots of these—and lots of images of brains too! These are important, but incomplete.

Soldiers are not the only ones who get PTSD—and not all soldiers are men.

I know Google has been hearing this lately, in regards to Google searches. Last month, Twittter user @BonKamona (Bonnie Kamona) compared two sets of search images herself and found troubling images when comparing “professional” and “unprofessional” hairstyles for work.

The professional images were of mostly white women. The images deemed unprofessional were virtually all women of color. She was troubled. How did that happen?

Google’s response? “This is fundamentally a societal problem—here are persistent and problematic biases, and they’re quite pervasive in the media, on the web, etc—meta-tagging their images with their own descriptions…Search engines, in turn, reflect what’s on the web. This is not unique to our search engine; Yahoo! and Bing show similar results.”

Really? That’s it? Google is fine with stereotypes if they are popular and web-search based? No problem to have myths and misinformation when facts, data and truth is available and online? It’s fine if misconceptions linger on—if racist views go unchecked and women are ignored, overlooked or not captured in secret algorithms?

I get that Google and other searches somehow mirror the world we live in—to which I say, sexism sucks and maybe this is a moment to pause—again—on that fact. But it’s more than that—because PTSD has many sufferers and many causes.

It’s fair to ask how search engines operate. Who queries or codes them, and why is it done so badly that it’s okay to obliterate women’s experiences so completely?  Is this a result of not enough diversity in technology? Don’t humans define the searches that “crawl” or can blogs and websites? I’m not a techie, but I wonder why the causes of PTSD in women, children and civilian men are not represented?

The existence of PTSD isn’t much older than the internet—the diagnosis has only existed since 1980. And by 1992, Judith Herman already written the best book on trauma ever, Trauma and Recovery, arguing that women and children and those with “complex” PTSD need to considered as well.

Nonetheless, the faces of the people who suffer most from this condition consistently remain missing.

I get that the “collective we” has to change, if we don’t like what we see reflected. We can do it.

The #FacesOfPTSD campaign will run starting on May 6th. The singular mission is sharing images of those impacted with PTSD from all causes—not just war.

We know, as Arwen Faulkner said, “Not all wars take place on a battlefield.”

We can upgrade dated and dangerous the “operating systems” dismissing our experiences and lives, so the search engine results start to reflect our reality.

There is no singular image of PTSD.

PTSD isn’t a he.

PTSD impacts women, men and children.

The causes, like the faces, are varied.

Join if you wish—use updated images in articles, blogs, websites and media and captured by search engines.

Tag posts with “PTSD” when writing about trauma, domestic violence, sexual assault, childhood abuse and adversity, accidents and disasters so the search engines locate us.

Share articles like those written by other women identifying themselves as trauma survivors coming out and sharing words and images, such as Dawn Daum who is a part of this campaign.

Share your photo on our social media campaign page. We can change Google, Bing and Yahoo by harnessing the new power of social media to do old-school grassroots organizing.

We can use the power of sharing for good—sharing pictures and information.

It’s time to recognize all the faces of PTSD.



“WHO releases guidance on mental health care after trauma.”

“Not All Wars Take Place on the Battlefield.”

“PTSD: National Center for PTSD.”

“How Common is PTSD?”

Google under fire over “racist” image search results for “unprofessional hair.”

PTSD Statistics.

Student is left shocked after a Google search for ‘unprofessional hairstyles at work’ features All black women – while “‘professional styles’ lists just white models.”


Author: Christine “Cissy” White

Editor: Yoli Ramazzina

Photo: Screenshot, courtesy of the author.

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