LEADING mental health experts are recommending that thousands of survivors of Covid-19, particularly those admitted to hospital, be screened for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

It is suggested that events in hospital, especially if the person required admission to a High Dependency or Intensive Care Unit (ICU), enforced separation from loved ones, and indeed the lack of a cure for coronavirus, provide the perfect storm for the development of the condition most of us recognise by its abbreviation, PTSD.

The term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was initially coined to describe the behaviours exhibited by service personnel returning from areas of conflict. Many had experienced near death situations, or had witnessed the death of colleagues, often in dramatic and harrowing fashion. However, we are now aware that PTSD can develop after a varied number of traumatic life events. A by-no-means-exclusive selection of these include abuse of any sort, accidents, emergency admissions to hospital and childbirth.

One of the theories behind the development of PTSD is that the event or events experienced take us completely out of our comfort zone and challenge our entire outlook on life. It questions what we presume is right and proper, and we become acutely aware of our mortality.

While two in three people who suffer a traumatic experience will recover, usually within four to six weeks, sadly the remaining third will not. Although it may be a rocky ride in the immediate aftermath, many will be able to process the chain of events and move on from it. For the third that cannot, symptoms of PTSD may develop immediately, or there may be a delayed reaction, which can even occur years later.

Symptoms of PTSD are both psychological and physical. Sufferers may try to avoid memories of the events, becoming emotionally numb. Sadly, this also causes them to not enjoy any happy experiences life has to offer, and they may retreat inwards, becoming isolated from friends and loved ones. Others may develop a state of increased vigilance, where they are always watching out for another event to happen. And although these are survival mechanisms, over the long term, social isolation and increased levels of stress hormones will have a very damaging effect on a person’s wellbeing.

Physical symptoms of PTSD include abdominal discomfort, chest pain, palpitations, headaches and sweating to name a few. Children suffering PTSD are more likely to report physical symptoms.

The condition of complex PTSD may develop if trauma is experienced at an early age, for example childhood, abuse is repetitive, or is inflicted by a person in a position of responsibility, for example a care giver, where the natural assumption is that this person has the other’s best interests first and foremost. Children manifesting PTSD may act out their suffering in play, even if they are unable or too frightened to express their distress directly. Complex PTSD is not unique to children, adults also suffer it.

As for any psychological condition, treatment begins with an acceptance of the need for help, sometimes a stumbling block. Therapies have been developed including trauma-based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which gently challenges harmful ways we look at and process certain events. Eye Movement Desensitisation Therapy (EMDR) involves side to side movements of the eyes, usually under the control of the therapist’s finger, while recalling the traumatic event or events. Both of these have been approved by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Psychological treatments are often recommended first before considering the addition of antidepressant medications.

As a relative it can be difficult to watch a loved one go through such an awful illness. As well as encouraging the individual to seek help, experts and support groups recommend the following tips;

Allow the person to discuss their experiences freely and openly. Try not to interrupt, but let them continue to speak until they have finished.

Do not say that you understand what they are going through, unless you have experienced PTSD yourself.

Do not minimise what they have gone through. Phrases such as “just pull yourself together” are very unhelpful and are likely to make the individual retreat further into themselves, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

Equally please avoid expressing that a person is “lucky to be alive”. Often sufferers feel the exact opposite.

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