In the news this morning is a story about a Kentucky law maker who shot himself after sexual allegations came to light the previous day. While there are many aspects of this man’s life that both encouraging and discouraging, his last words on social media indicated that his death was do the to lasting effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This one small detail which was buried at the end of the story highlights the daunting outcome of untreated PTSD.
[This is one of the articles posted, Kentucky State Lawmaker Deathl. Note: I have no connection to this story and do not know the family. However, I do have a heart for those who suffer from the effects of a mental illness.]
After having worked with hundreds of clients with PTSD or complex PTSD, this story is a sad reminder of the severity of the disorder. It is not something that can be dismissed, sedated through medication, or left untreated as the haunting effects often resurface at the most inconvenient moments. Rather, it must be systematically worked through until a person is fully healed no matter how long that process might take.
What causes PTSD? Any type of traumatic event can bring on the effects of PTSD. This disorder was once commonly attributed to combat veterans but has recently been expanded to other trauma and victims of abuse. Some examples include: experiencing a severe car accident, watching the death of someone, witnessing victims of gun shots, having been raped, seeing a premature infant hooked up to multiple machines, and having been beaten/mugged. The trauma and shock of the situation in combination with a strong emotional response can birth a PTSD reaction. This is different for each individual. Two people experiencing the same event might result in one having PTSD and the not. Having PTSD is not a sign of mental weakness, rather it is an indication of a person with great compassion and empathy for their fellow man.
What is PTSD? There are eight criterion for the diagnosis of PTSD, all which must be present. This is a summary of the DSM-5 definition.
- Criterion A: Stressor: The event was experienced directly to self, witnessed, recounted by a close individual or first hand responder.
- Criterion B: Intrusion symptoms: Intrusive memories, nightmares, flashbacks, distress and/or emotional response after the event.
- Criterion C: Avoidance: Avoidance of people, thoughts, emotions, and/or places associated with the trauma.
- Criterion D: Negative alterations in cognitive and mood: Negative thoughts or feelings worsen such as forgetfulness of the event, negative thoughts of self, blaming self, intense fear, feeling isolated, loss of interest in activities, and/or repeated negative emotions.
- Criterion E: Alterations in arousal and reactivity: Irritability, risky behavior, hypervigilance, startle reaction, difficulty concentrating, and/or difficulty sleeping increases after the event.
- Criterion F: Duration: Symptoms last for longer than a month.
- Criterion G: Functional significance: Symptoms cause distress socially or at work.
- Criterion H: Exclusion: Symptoms are not due to medication, substances, or other illness.
What is C-PTSD? This has the same response as PTSD however the stressor is a repeated event and not necessarily a one-time occurrence. Some examples include: concentration camps, prisoner of war, victims of sex trafficking, and long-term domestic violence, child abuse, sexual abuse, mental abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, spiritual abuse, verbal abuse, and/or financial abuse.
How does it manifest? From an outsiders point of view, the person suffering from PTSD seems to be in another world. Their body changes dramatically as they experience a physiological response to what seems to be a mundane incident. The overreaction can be accompanied by a intense fear response causing the person to appear frozen, wanting to fight, or trying to flee. Efforts to communicate or touch them while in this mode is ineffective and could spark a violent response. Rather, saying the words in a calm quiet voice, “You are safe, I am here with you,” can reduce the intensity and bring the victim back to the present world.
What can family members do? This is not something that can be ignored. Time does not heal this wound and often makes it even worse. Professional counseling is the best solution for healing and often family members need counseling to better understand the triggers of the PTSD reaction. Even if the victim of PTSD is resistant to seeking help, persistently and lovingly encouraging them in that direction is helpful. As a reminder, some victims of PTSD are so overwhelmed that they take their own life or the lives of others. Please don’t give up until they get professional help.
This latest tragedy of the Kentucky law maker taking his life due to the lasting effects of PTSD should serve as a wake-up call to family members of other PTSD sufferers. I have worked with victims whose traumatic event occurred 10-30-50 years prior and witnessed the difference healing can make in a person’s life. It is never too late to get help.