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Post-Traumatic Stress

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Most of us have heard of PTSD: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but perhaps until now you have associated the term with military veterans whose experiences in war zones have caused them to suffer with their mental health.

When someone dies by suicide, we not only have to contend with immense grief and sense of loss, but we can often be traumatised too. This can be as a result of difficult experiences with your loved one before they died, and from the shock of the death itself. You may have spent years worrying that your loved one might die in this way, or it may be a complete shock because it was so totally unexpected, as it was for our family.

As a CBT therapist I am very familiar with treating the symptoms of PTSD and so I knew what I was experiencing during the first 18 months: flashbacks to the phone call, to seeing my son's body; a near constant fear that something bad would happen (particularly to someone else I loved) hyper-vigilance; being easily startled; physical symptoms of racing heart, dry mouth, trembling and shaking. I became an anxious passenger when my husband drove the car. I experienced my first, terrifying, panic attacks.

Are you suffering from PTSD since the loss of your loved one? Possibly.

PTSD symptoms can include:

  • Re-experiencing the event in dreams, nightmares, flashbacks

  • Intense and prolonged distress

  • Anxiety (e.g. racing heart, shaking, dry mouth, feeling sick or nauseous)

  • Persistent negative emotions: e.g. fear, horror, anger, guilt, shame

  • Hyper-vigilance (being constantly alert for possible danger)

  • Exaggerated startle response, feeling on edge and jumpy

  • Avoidance of reminders of the event

  • Lacking concentration and focus, being forgetful

  • Persistent negative thoughts

  • Feeling detached from others

The definition for a PTSD diagnosis in the UK can be found here:

Is it important to have a diagnosis? Unless you need it for some legal reason or for work-related problems, there's not usually any reason to have a diagnosis. In the UK you don't need a formal diagnosis in order to have treatment.

If you think you do need a diagnosis, the only medical professional able to provide that in the UK is a psychiatrist; your GP can refer you on the NHS, or you can seek a private consultation. PTSD symptoms after a traumatic event are common but often go away within a few months; therefore a diagnosis is not normally be made until more than 6 months after the event.

Medication Your GP can prescribe anti-depressants and/or anti-anxiety medication to help with symptom management.

They may also offer additional medication to help with sleep and severe symptoms of anxiety and panic (these are prescribed short-term only because some of these medications can be addictive).

What about psychological treatment/talking therapy?

Many people find grief counselling extremely helpful. When you have lost someone by suicide grief can often be complicated.

Finding the right therapist can be tricky. I had quite a lot of difficulty with this, as you'll see from my post A Therapist's Search for a Therapist

When looking for a therapist I would advise contacting them by email initially, outlining your experience, possibly with a follow-up email with more detail if that's hard to do, and requesting an initial telephone appointment to see whether you feel comfortable with them. Do ask about their experience in this area. In my opinion experience in working with severe trauma is crucial, and experience of working with suicide specifically would be an advantage.

CRUSE are the largest grief counselling service

The NHS offer free psychological therapy across England this tends to be Cognitive behaviour Therapy (CBT ) and may not be appropriate in the early months after loss, but there will often be a waiting list anyway.

The other thing I would add here is whether or not you experience symptoms of PTSD, if you can manage to talk about how you're feeling, you will be helping your brain to process what's happened. In a later post I'll explain more about PTSD in this context and how CBT and other treatments may help.

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