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Ask The Expert: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

March 28, 2019

Given the recent deaths of Parkland survivors, what are the signs and how can we prevent suicide among those who have gone through post-traumatic stress disorder or survivor’s guilt?

Paul Burns

Recent deaths by suicide reminds us of the need to continue awareness, care, and support for those who have experienced a traumatic event.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms include: Reliving the events, having nightmares, hyper-vigilance, and perseverative thoughts can’t stop thinking about the event. These symptoms can display in behaviors like avoidance, mood disturbance/mood swings, irritability, and poor concentration. A traumatic event such as a terroristic act, sexual assault, physical assault, motor vehicle accidents either experienced or witnessed, can lead to the above symptoms and are a normal reaction to an extreme situation. For some, these symptoms dissipate over time. PTSD may be considered for diagnosis when the symptoms persist and interfere with a person’s daily life.

Survivors guilt often accompanies PTSD, particularly when the traumatic event is a shared experience. As stated in the name, the guilt impugn self-esteem. Statements of it should have been me; I didn’t deserve to live; blaming themselves for the outcome; a perception that I should be over this by now; everyone else has moved on, are manifestations of this shame. Stigma around mental illness can prevent seeking treatment.

Severe experience of PTSD symptoms can make an individual vulnerable to death by Suicide. The No More Whispers campaign adopted by Atlantic Behavioral Health-Newton Medical Center to educate the community on suicide awareness, outlines warning signs and other risk factors for suicide:

Immediate risks include:

  • Talking about wanting to die or kill oneself
  • Seeking methods to die
  • Making hopeless statements with no future orientation
  • Feeling trapped and in unbearable pain
  • Messaging loved ones goodbye. (This is increasingly common on social media).

Other serious risk factors:

  • Increased drug or alcohol use
  • Feeling like a burden to others
  • Reckless behaviors
  • Withdrawing or isolating self
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Co-occurring mental illness
  • Increased impulsivity
  • Loss of job or relationships
  • Decreased interest in activities

Though these risk factors do not directly predict suicide attempts, they provide guidance that a person needs help. PTSD is a treatable condition. Community support is a vital component. Psychological first aid in close proximity to the time of the event has shown value in helping people cope with the experience. There are evidenced-based treatment modalities for people who continue to have symptoms. It is important that if you are experiencing PTSD symptoms; reach out to someone you trust to ask for help. If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or you know someone who is, please contact the Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Sussex County NJ residents may also call the local hotline at 973-383-0973.

Paul Burns, LAC, is a Coordinator, Psychiatric Emergency Services & Crisis Atlantic Behavioral Health, at Atlantic Health System’s Newton Medical Center and Hackettstown Medical Center.