[alert style="info"]By: Paolo del Vecchio, M.S.W., Director, SAMHSA Center for Mental Health Services[/alert]Each June, SAMHSA works with National Center for PTSD in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to raise awareness of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD refers to a mental health condition that some people develop after witnessing or experiencing a life-threatening or unusually violent event. Although PTSD is often associated with military combat, it can have many causes, including domestic violence, abuse or neglect, sexual assault, accidental injury or natural disasters.
Recent headlines highlight the need to understand what PTSD is and how people can get help. Natural disasters like hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, wildfires and flooding can have a lasting impact on those who are forced to flee nature’s path. We also know that exposure to violence can have a traumatic effect, even on those who escape physical harm.
The experience of repeated visions of the event or flashbacks, anxiety, irritability and avoidance may begin immediately and for many will fade over time. When these feelings or symptoms do not go away and when they last at least a month and interfere with life activity, a diagnosis of PTSD can be established. For some, the symptoms will not start right away and this is called delayed onset PTSD. Family and friends can be very helpful however once these features have been present for longer than a month and interfere with life activity, professional help is recommended. The four main groups of symptoms are
- Reliving the event (through flashbacks or nightmares, for example)
- Avoiding situations (such as being afraid to leave home or talk about the trauma)
- Negative beliefs and discouraged attitude about life, friends and the world in general.
- Arousal, including sleeplessness, difficulty concentrating, or being startled easily
Not everyone experiencing PTSD will experience all of these signs or symptoms. Children, for example, may display different signs of PTSD. SAMHSA’s National Child Traumatic Stress Initiative describes common signs among pre-school, elementary school, and middle and high school age groups. Children are particularly susceptible to PTSD when they do not receive consistent social support. This May’s National Children’s Mental Health Awareness day focused on the urgent need to recognize these signs and support children who have experienced trauma.
We are better equipped now than ever before to help prevent and treat PTSD. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s website, ready.gov, offers suggestions for all hazard preparedness for families and businesses. SAMHSA’s Disaster Technical Assistance Center (DTAC) offers a variety of resources for first responders, schools and families that help them identify people who may be at risk of PTSD and link them to the appropriate resources.
Some DTAC resources that may be particularly helpful include the following tip sheets and issues of The Dialogue newsletter:
- Tips for Talking with and Helping Children and Youth Cope After a Disaster or Traumatic Event: A Guide for Parents, Caregivers, and Teachers
- Tips for Survivors: Coping with Grief After a Disaster or Traumatic Event
- The Dialogue, Vol. 14, No. 1, covering the effects of trauma on first responders
- The Dialogue Vol. 13, Nos. 3-4, covering response to mass violence
Additional supports and resources are available for those who may need extra support to recover from PTSD or other effects of such events. SAMHSA offers short-term Crisis Counseling Assistance and Training Program (CCP) grants. We also link people to needed behavioral health treatment through the Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator and National Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or 1-800-487-4889 for TDD. When we come together as a community, we can support resilience and recovery in response to tragic events like natural disasters or violence.