Trauma and PTSD: What Are They and How Can I Help?
*If you feel you or someone you know is in danger, call 911, a local mental health crisis hotline or one of the following national crisis resources for immediate assistance:
• National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255 (TALK)
• Crisis Text Line: Text “MHFA” to 741-741
The terms “trauma” and “PTSD” often illicit thoughts of soldiers who have been negatively affected by going to war. That’s because post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was first recognized as an official diagnosis in response to symptoms Vietnam War veterans were exhibiting. However, PTSD is very prevalent outside of the veteran community as well. In fact, according to The New York Times, the trauma most likely to cause PTSD is rape. Data from the National Center for PTSD shows that women are more than twice as likely to develop PTSD than men and a shocking one in three women will experience a sexual assault in their lifetime. This means that someone in your life is more than likely affected.
The Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) curriculum defines trauma as a shocking and dangerous event that someone sees or that happens to them. There are different kinds of trauma, ranging from mass traumatic events, like terrorist attacks or school shootings, to historical trauma, which can span across generations and to complex trauma, which is trauma that happens repeatedly over extended periods of time and usually involves a person of authority or a caregiver. Just one event can have a lifetime impact on a person’s overall wellbeing and their capacity to cope.
Whether or not you know someone who has a PTSD diagnosis, we have all experienced the societal trauma brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. If you think someone in your life is in need of help, follow the MHFA Action Plan to facilitate constructive conversations regarding trauma and help #BeTheDifference.
How to help someone living with trauma or PTSD with the MHFA Action Plan (ALGEE):
• Approach and assess for risk of suicide or harm: Trauma survivors are often hyper-vigilant, so be thoughtful about approaching them in a non-threatening way. Choose a non-intrusive time and quiet environment to talk; you can even offer the person choices about when and where to go so they feel more in control.
Be on the lookout for signs the person may be in crisis; this could be in the form of a panic attack, suicidal thoughts and behaviors or nonsuicidal self-injury. If the person is in crisis, remember that as a First Aider, you don’t have to take on too much, and it’s outside of your scope to diagnose or treat. Call 911 if you need assistance.
• Listen nonjudgmentally: If the person is not in crisis, ask them how they are feeling and how long they’ve been feeling that way. Take time to listen before trying to discuss possible courses of action. People who have lived through a trauma are often overwhelmed by their feelings. Keep yourself as calm and centered as possible and use a calm voice to help make the person feel safe and comfortable.
• Give reassurance and information: One of the best things you can do for someone living with trauma is reminding them that they are not alone, and you are there to support them. Once the person has had a chance to fully express themselves, you can begin to discuss possible courses of action. To help build trust with the person, be sure to do what you say you are going to do and be as honest as possible in your interactions – they may have been misled or let down by people who offered help in the past.
• Encourage appropriate professional help: We know that if trauma is addressed and appropriate treatment and supports are provided sooner than later, a person’s chances of recovery are much higher. Educating the person about treatments available for trauma can help remove some barriers to treatment. Options include trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT), eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, prolonged exposure (PE) therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) and somatic experiencing and medications. If you’re interested in learning more about what treatment might be right for you, talk to your primary care physician.
• Encourage self-help and other support strategies: Encourage the person to turn to family, friends and support groups. Connecting with others who have experienced PTSD or other trauma-related challenges can be extremely helpful in learning how others have managed their challenges and can provide an opportunity for growth and change. Self-help strategies can also be effective in coping with trauma. Skills training interventions have been shown to help a person learn new ways of managing trauma responses and creating safety within their environments. A few providers of these interventions include Seeking Safety, Wellness Recovery Action Planning, Center for Mind-Body Medicine and various 12-step groups.
As a Mental Health First Aider, you can help destigmatize trauma and PTSD by having open, supportive conversations with the people in your community. Recovery is possible, and together, we can help create a world where no one is too ashamed to seek treatment.
Get trained in MHFA today!
Blum, D. (2022, April 22). A private war: Why PTSD is still overlooked. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/04/well/mind/ptsd-trauma-symptoms.html.
Kaiser Permanente. (2020, June 17). Addressing societal trauma in uncertain times. https://about.kaiserpermanente.org/community-health/news/addressing-societal-trauma-in-uncertain-times.
Mental Health First Aid. (2020). Mental Health First Aid USA for adults assisting adults. National Council for Mental Wellbeing.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (n.d.). How common is PTSD in women? https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/common/common_women.asp.