Trauma and Mental Health
by Dr. Bettina Christl, Clinical Psychologist (CFS Vice-President)
Australia certainly had its fair share of events in the past two or so years that could be described as traumatic, whether it was devastating drought, the horrific fires of 2019/2020, or the current pandemic.
Besides natural disasters, traumatic events include accidents, physical and sexual abuse, severe neglect, war and many other experiences of violence or threat of violence. Traumatic events can impact us when they happen directly to us or when we witness these, or when we learn about people close to us having been subjected to a traumatic event. Trauma can also be experienced by being exposed to details of traumatic events repeatedly as is common for first responders and mental health professionals.
Traumatic events impact everyone differently and do not automatically lead to the development of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Most people recover from traumatic events with the help of family, friends and community without developing PTSD. However, 5 to 10% of Australians will experience PTSD in their lifetime.
So, what is PTSD? PTSD is characterised by unwanted re-experiencing of parts of the traumatic event through distressing memories, nightmares, flashbacks in which the person feels like they are back in the traumatic situation, or extreme distress in response to reminders of the trauma. PTSD is marked by an effort to avoid reminders and memories of the traumatic event. PTSD impacts one’s thinking too; it leads to difficulties recalling details about the traumatic event accurately and can lead to believes that the world is dangerous, or others cannot be trusted. Concentration may be impaired too. Individuals with PTSD may be more prone to anger outbursts, may get startled more easily and may feel disconnected from their family and friends; they may suffer from sleeping difficulties too. In summary, PTSD impacts feeling, thinking and relating to others considerably. Trauma also increases the risk for physical ill health, especially childhood trauma, as the Adverse Childhood Events (ACE) study has shown (for more information see https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/aces/index.html).
If you think you or someone you know is suffering from the impacts of a traumatic experience, talk to your GP about this and they can link you in with a mental health professional to help.
Phoenix Australia and the Blue Knot Foundation are organisations in Australia that specialise in psychological trauma and provide helpful resources on their websites:
- https://www.blueknot.org.au/ – BlueKnot specialises in complex trauma such as childhood abuse
Many people with mental health issues have also experienced trauma; therefore, it is important for organisations working with people with mental health issues to adopt a trauma informed way of providing their services, which is based on the following principles:
- Safety – emotional as well as physical e.g. is the environment welcoming?
- Trust – is the service sensitive to people’s needs?
- Choice – do you provide opportunity for choice?
- Collaboration – do you communicate a sense of ‘doing with’ rather than ‘doing to’?
- Empowerment – is empowering people a key focus?
- Respect for Diversity – do you respect diversity in all its forms?
CFS strives to adhere to these principles in all its activities.