After the Flood: Noah and the Ramifications of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

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ByLance J. Sussman

Parshat Noach

In general society today, Noah is widely depicted as a kindly old man who saved humanity, animals and birds from the Great Flood.


Depictions of Noah, the ark and, of course, the rainbow can be found just about everywhere, especially in nurseries and bedrooms of little children. Noah was a good man, a hero of sorts and a role model for people with pets and caregivers in general.

Not so fast! Read the whole story! It actually does not end well.

Yes, the floodwaters recede, Noah and his family leave the boat and humanity begins anew. But then what? “Noah,” the Book of Genesis continues, “a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk” and then, literally, lost control of his life.

What happened to Noah, the calm ship captain who stayed even-keel in the storm? One possibility is that he developed the first reported case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Noah, the Torah tells us, was psychologically sound prior to the flood, experienced tremendous trauma during the event and, subsequently, failed to adjust to post-flood life in basically every dimension of his life. Noah, it seemed, had a serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder and no possibility of treatment.

In 1980, just 36 years ago, PTSD was recognized by the 36,000-member American Psychiatric Association (APA) as a serious mental condition rooted in “exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violation. … The disturbance, regardless of its trigger, causes clinically significant distress in the individual’s social interactions, capacity to work or other important areas of functioning.” Particularly, in the military today, there is a great deal of discussion as to whether or not to call PTSD a “disorder” or an “injury” for both cultural and therapeutic reasons.

The statistics on PTSD are alarming. In the United States, approximately 3.5 percent of the adult population has PTSD at any given moment. Cumulatively, as many as many as 9 percent are personally affected over a lifetime.

PTSD is the most prevalent diagnosis today among American military veterans, although it is also estimated that only half of those with PTSD seek treatment. In one survey of 600 recent U.S. combat veterans, it was reported the rate of alcohol abuse was 39 percent, PTSD was at 14 percent and drug abuse was at 3 percent. Among Vietnam War veterans, the correlation of PTSD and drinking problems can run as high as 80 percent.

An even higher rate of PTSD is reported among victims of sexual assault, a widespread crime in every sector of society and around the globe. In a 2006 Canadian medical journal it was reported that “the lifetime prevalence of PTSD for women who have been sexually assaulted is 50 percent. Moreover, sexual assault is the most frequent cause of PTSD in women, with one study reporting that 94 percent of women experienced PTSD symptoms during the first two weeks after an assault.” Thus, it is not surprising that the story of Noah, too, ends with a veiled reference to sexual assault and further traumatization.

It is also important to note that the relatively recent APA recognition of PTSD has impacted the study and treatment of Holocaust survivors and their children.

New questions have developed about delayed PTSD and the generational transfer of trauma and its impact. Even the term “survivor” has been called into question as the longitudinal effects of the Holocaust experience are better understood. As Dr. Jerome Rosenberg (University of Alabama, 1984) wrote, “it may not be enough to view survivors as living martyrs or as clinically disturbed products of extremis.”

Finally, there are profound religious implications associated with PTSD. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, “research suggests that for many trauma survivors, spirituality may be a resource that can be associated with resilience and recovery. However, for some, the circumstances of the trauma may lead to the questioning of important and previously sustaining beliefs. This can lead to spiritual struggle or even loss of faith. It is important for helping professionals to be comfortable asking about how spirituality has been affected by trauma, and to what role spirituality is playing within the recovery process following trauma.”

Today, it is imperative that we understand that the Torah recognized PTSD as a serious problem thousands of years ago. It happens in the din of battle, in the shadows of our college campus and even in our homes. Vigilance, treatment and compassion are imperative.

Noah survived the flood but drowned in the wake of his untreated PTSD. Let us learn from his tragic example.

Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D., is senior rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park. He teaches about world religions at Delaware Valley University and is working on a history of the Philadelphia Jewish community. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.

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