PHN Explores: We Need to Talk About PTSD in People With Past Health Traumas—and How Coronavirus Is Making it Worse (From Health Magazine)
PHN Content By Mat Edelson
If We Had Written the Headline
The coronavirus threat triggers mental health issues in some people with chronic illnesses
According to the American Psychiatric Association, Post-Traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) “is a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, rape or other violent personal assault.”
(You’ll note there’s no mention of the possibility of people with chronic illnesses also suffering from PTSD. This oversight is at the heart of our take on this story, as you’ll read below)
Why You Should Care
If you’ve experienced a serious chronic illness or long-term medical issue, it’s very possible the pandemic has you feeling extremely anxious and/or depressed. Truth is, you may be suffering from a unique form of post-traumatic stress disorder that many clinicians aren’t trained to recognize, but which definitely can be treated.
It’s hard to recognize a condition that doesn’t officially exist. The latest diagnostic manual of mental illness* states “(the only) medical incidents that qualify as traumatic events involve sudden, catastrophic events.” The manual is referring to devastating car crashes, horrific industrial accidents…cataclysms similar to the trauma and Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) associated with battlefield blast injuries, only these occur in civilians who survive and endure numerous surgeries and lengthy rehabs.
So according to the manual, people with apparently less-dire illnesses (in terms of immediate impact) can’t develop PTSD. And yet, many docs report that the pandemic is triggering PTSD-like responses in their patients with chronic illnesses such as asthma, cancer, HIV, and more.
When you look at the numbers, these case reports are not surprising. According to Maia Kredentser, a PTSD expert cited in this Health Magazine story, 20% of people with a previous ICU experience suffer from PTSD. These people face the proverbial pandemic double-whammy; studies show many people without PTSD are stressed out dealing with corona in their midst, but for people with PTSD this level of anxiety and/or depression can be even higher. And if they happen to be front-line health workers, the despair can be nearly unbearable (see Related Stories below).
One important takeaway from these stories is that patients who think they have PTSD symptoms (see Resources below) may have to aggressively advocate for themselves. It’s not that doctors don’t care; again, most haven’t been taught to look for the signs of PTSD in chronically ill patients. So don’t suffer in silence; PTSD can be treated with therapy and/or medication, but you have to speak up.
* It’s called the DSM-5, aka the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, published in 2013.
Maia Kredentser, assistant professor of psychology, University of Manitoba (she’s published several papers on PTSD developing in ICU and critically-ill patients)
If you’re wondering if you’re suffering from PTSD, the Mayo Clinic breaks down PTSD symptoms into four categories. These are:
- Intrusive memories (Mayo gives examples such as reliving or dreaming about the traumatic event as if it were just happening again);
- Avoidance (as in avoiding places, activities or people that remind you of the traumatic event);
- Negative changes in thinking and mood (as in detaching from family and friends, and/or feeling hopeless about the future), and;
- Changes in physical and emotional reactions (such as always being on guard, or being easily frightened).
There are other examples of symptoms on Mayo’s PTSD webpage, which you can view here.
Health Magazine also has great resources for people managing “invisible illnesses”–i.e., chronic conditions–while navigating the threat of coronavirus. Here’s the story: 5 Anxiety-Reducing Resources for People With Invisible Illnesses to Use During the COVID-19 Pandemic (See the story)
The first two stories look at PTSD and the overall psychological impact of the coronavirus on health care workers.
From the NY Times: “I Can’t Turn My Brain Off:” PTSD and burnout threatens medical workers (See the story)
From Scientific American: Psychological Trauma Is the Next Crisis for Coronavirus Health Workers (See the story)
The following two stories, like the featured Health Magazine piece, look at the long-term effect coronavirus may have on everyone’s mental health:
From USA Today (op/ed): Coronavirus is a terrifying illness that could leave millions of survivors with PTSD (See the story)
From the NY Times: How to Reduce Your Risk of PTSD in a Post-Covid-19 World (See the story)
The World Health Organization cites numerous studies in this report to the United Nations highlighting how the coronavirus and quarantines are creating a worldwide need for greater mental health care: Covid-19 and the need for action on mental health (Read the report)