Trauma is described as the damage to the mind done by an unpleasant event. Although our experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic may differ, we can all agree, it has been unpleasant
Dr Marshinee Naidoo, a psychiatrist who practises at Akeso Alberton mental health facility in Johannesburg, says the fear, anxiety and uncertainty felt by South Africans over the past few months will leave many traumatised with the possible cases of PTSD long after the crisis is over.
The trauma doesn’t end with the event
PTSD is widely associated with war. Soldiers who have lived through devastating events are emotionally and mentally scarred by their experiences and react in varying ways including anxiety, anger, depression and other intense emotions which can be triggered by a current event, sensation or a memory of the traumatic experience.
Although there are glaring differences between our current situation and war, all traumatic experiences create the potential for PTSD trauma.
“Most people experience some degree of distress after a traumatic event, or a period of trauma, in their lives, as they try to come to terms with it, but after a period of a few weeks, or months, they tend to recover from the shock and do not develop lasting mental health difficulties as a result of it,” says Dr Naidoo.
“However, a sizable number of people — between 18% and 25% — experience severe ongoing symptoms in the months or even years following such an event or period of trauma. When symptoms last longer than four weeks, it may indicate a deeper level of psychological distress known as a post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. PTSD severely disrupts mental health and can substantially restrict the person’s ability to function,” she explains.
Are you at risk of PTSD?
“PTSD presented a major challenge to our mental healthcare system even before the COVID-19 pandemic, which I believe will only serve to exacerbate the incidence of PTSD and the pressure on the system. We will, therefore, need to pay much greater attention to this condition as a nation going forward,” she says.
Dr Naidoo explains that each person’s response to traumatic situations is highly complex and unique. Certain individuals may be so sensitive to the trauma that they may even experience news footage they see on television as deeply disturbing.
Dr Naidoo says other individuals who may be at high risk of PTSD are those who are continually exposed to ongoing traumatic situations in their line of work, such as paramedics, nurses and other healthcare workers working at the frontline of the pandemic.
If you think you have PTSD
So what could be indications that one has PTSD? Dr Naidoo says that many trauma survivors avoid talking about what happened, feel emotionally numb when they think about the trauma, and withdraw from contact with other people. Other symptoms may include depression, anxiety disorders, drug dependency, distressing thoughts and memories of the traumatic event, sleeping difficulties, guilt, and hyper-alertness to any signs of danger.
“PTSD can be diagnosed and successfully treated by a multi-disciplinary team of healthcare practitioners, including psychiatrists and psychologists, who are experienced in the management of the condition. They will work to assist the individual to regain a sense of control over their lives,” explains Dr Naidoo.
Individuals suffering from PTSD usually require long-term treatment that may include a combination of medical treatments and therapies to assist in their recovery. The psychiatrist may prescribe medication to assist in managing symptoms such as depression and anxiety. One-on-one psychotherapy with a psychologist experienced in the treatment of mental trauma, as well as group therapy sessions, has also shown good results.
“Human beings, in general, have a remarkable capacity to adapt to the most extreme stressors and we tend to have reserves of strength we never thought imaginable. Working within the field of traumatic stress, I am constantly reminded that there is a most extraordinary strength in the human spirit. Sometimes, however, we need professional help and support to ‘take back’ our lives, and we should not be afraid to acknowledge this to ourselves and to seek such assistance, particularly at this challenging time,” concludes Dr Naidoo.
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