Almost every month of the year is an awareness month for something and June 2021 was the turn of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) awareness. After a 2-3 day flurry of posts on social media to read this, share that, do something else it soon went quiet. We cannot raise awareness of any issue let alone a complex mental health condition in 3 days so as we approach the end of what would seem a long-forgotten PTSD awareness month we’d like to remind everyone of the need to support people living with this very challenging condition.
PTSD develops in some people who have experienced trauma. Trauma is generally caused when someone has felt their life has been in danger or at risk of serious violence and injury but can also be caused by other events such as loss and serious physical health conditions. We should note that it is normal to feel heightened levels of anxiety or stress after a traumatic incident but these feelings should subside after a few weeks. However, for a small number of people these feelings remain or return and develop into PTSD.
PTSD affects around 4 in 100 people so around 4% of the general population and within the veteran community there is a similar level of around 4.4%. It affects the hippocampus in the brain which controls the freeze, fight, flight mechanism within us. Those who develop PTSD may become less engaging with people and activities they used to enjoy, they may feel emotionally numb, become pessimistic, irritable, angry and develop a heightened sense of vigilance. This may be accompanied by feelings of guilt or shame, changing moods and difficulty in sleeping, concentrating and memory loss.
Other signs someone may be experiencing PTSD are a deterioration in self-care, difficulty holding down a job, finding it hard to form and maintain relationships, a loss of sex drive, coping with change and losing interest in their hobbies and pastimes. PTSD often co-exists with other conditions such as depression, anxiety and can lead to greater risk of self-harm and suicide. Many of the 11 veterans from 2 RIFLES who took their own lives after serving in Afghanistan in 2009 were diagnosed with PTSD. The important thing is we notice the small changes in our friends and colleagues and act early to ensure they get the support they need.
It is key if we suspect someone may have PTSD that they get an assessment to confirm the condition and allow them to access the appropriate support. There are different types of PTSD so the assessment is really important. Often a combination of medication and therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or eye-movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EDMR) will be used to support someone with PTSD. We should also not underestimate the power of peer support and allowing those with PTSD to talk and share their experiences with like-minded people can help. Organisations such as Mind, PTSDUK and Combat Stress can all provide information, resources and support to both those with PTSD and those supporting them. A technique useful for supporting someone experiencing flashbacks is grounding techniques were using the five senses we get the person to focus on the here and now such as naming 5 things they can see, 4 they can hear etc.
PTSD is a complex and challenging condition which thankfully affects only a small number of people however if we are serious about supporting them it’s not just a case of being aware for a day, a week or a month its about being PTSD aware all of the time.