Former State Supreme Court Justice and Trinity Lecturer Discusses PTSD

Barry Schaller says Society is ill equipped to deal with Severe Stress Disorders

HARTFORD, CT, March 6, 2013 – Despite the thousands of war veterans who returned to this country with disabling conditions after the Vietnam War, it wasn’t until 1980 that the American Psychiatric Association adopted Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as an official diagnosis, according to Barry Schaller, author of Veterans on Trial: The Coming Court Battles Over PTSD.

PTSD is a severe form of anxiety that can result from a stressful, life-altering event or experience. Although it is commonly associated with the battlefield, PTSD can affect a variety of victims, among them people who have been exposed to sexual abuse or violence, first responders, and those who have witnessed traumatic events such as the collapse of the World Trade Towers or the Newtown massacre.

Although Schaller’s book, which was published in the summer of 2012, primarily focuses on military veterans, his Common Hour talk Tuesday touched on the far-ranging aspects of PTSD and how unprepared this country is to deal with its ramifications and its victims.

“Society is not equipped to deal with the problems” of those experiencing PTSD, said Schaller, adding that the biggest lesson he took away from the research and writing of his book was that “before engaging in a military intervention, we have to consider the economic, political and human cost to society.”

PTSD is not a condition that should be easily dismissed or considered curable, said Schaller. Rather, PTSD is a chronic problem that lends itself to a variety of treatment programs and therapy and counseling. Medication, while of benefit to many, is not the panacea that many believe it to be, Schaller said. Drugs can help keep PTSD in check, but they are not a cure.

A former state Supreme Court and Appellate Court Justice in Connecticut, Schaller has long had an interest in how the victims of PTSD are viewed by the American judicial system and by society at large. Although most of the patients who are under the care of the U.S. Veterans Administration are Vietnam War veterans, experts anticipate that more than 350,000 men and women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan will return to civilian life with PTSD.

In his book, Schaller, who is also a bioethicist, chronicles the events leading to what he believes will be the most challenging PTSD epidemic in U.S. military history. Although Schaller, who received his B.A. from Yale College in 1960 and his J.D. from the Yale Law School in 1963, did not spend a great deal of time discussing the specifics of his book during the Common Hour event, it was clear that war veterans were uppermost on his mind.

Referring to the returning veterans, Schaller said the American public has shown “ambivalence and disinterest” to those with PTSD, adding that “everybody wants to move on. It’s clear that many veterans feel isolated from the rest of us.” Many veterans, he explained, “drop through the cracks and don’t get the mental health” assistance that they rightfully deserve.

In his book, Schaller discusses what political and judicial officials, military leaders, legislators and the mental health community can do to meet their responsibilities to the men and women who serve their country.

Prior to the Vietnam War, Schaller said people just thought that the veterans’ psychological problems were “their problems” and merely due to the stress of combat. After the American Psychiatric Association changed its attitude in 1980 and made it an official diagnosis, PTSD became a legal defense that could be used in the courtroom.

Schaller said it’s difficult to know how often PTSD is used successfully as a defense because so many criminal cases are plea-bargained. But it can also be used in the cases of women who claim to be the victims of sexual assault and by others whose situations previously had not been given “the full respect and seriousness” they deserved.

Schaller is a clinical visiting lecturer at the Yale Law School, a visiting lecturer at Trinity in public policy and law, and continues to hear cases in the Connecticut Appellate Court. He is the author of A Vision of American Law, and Understanding Bioethics and the Law.

In addition to his teaching and legal responsibilities, Schaller lectures widely on topics ranging from bioethics, neuroscience, mental health issues and public health ethics and law.  

His courses at Trinity include bioethics, public policy and law, public health policy, justice in American society, and the role of courts and judges in shaping public policy. Using a modified form of the Socratic method, his seminars are based on active class discussion involving critical analysis and evaluation of the issues in law, ethics, policy and medicine.