Suicide and PTSD
Day - June 27
Stress Disorder (PTSD)
People with PTSD tend to experience:
It is natural to feel afraid during and after a traumatic situation. Fear triggers many split-second changes in the body to help defend against danger or to avoid it. This fight-or-flight response is a typical reaction meant to protect a person from harm. Nearly everyone will experience a range of reactions after trauma, yet most people recover from initial symptoms naturally. Those who continue to experience problems may be diagnosed with PTSD. People who have PTSD may feel stressed or frightened even when they are not in danger.
Signs and Symptoms
Not every traumatized person develops ongoing (chronic) or even short-term (acute) PTSD. Not everyone with PTSD has been through a dangerous event. Some experiences, like the sudden, unexpected death of a loved one, can also cause PTSD. Symptoms usually begin early, within 3 months of the traumatic incident, but sometimes they begin years afterward. Symptoms must last more than a month and be severe enough to interfere with relationships or work to be considered PTSD. The course of the illness varies. Some people recover within 6 months, while others have symptoms that last much longer. In some people, the condition becomes chronic.
A doctor who has experience helping people with mental illnesses, such as a pschiatrist or psychologist, can diagnose PTSD.
To be diagnosed with PTSD, an adult must have all of the following for at least 1 month:
Re-experiencing symptoms include:
Re-experiencing symptoms may cause problems in a persons everyday routine. The symptoms can start from the persons own thoughts and feelings. Words, objects, or situations that are reminders of the event can also trigger re-experiencing symptoms.
Avoidance symptoms include:
Things that remind a person of the traumatic event can trigger avoidance symptoms. These symptoms may cause a person to change his or her personal routine. For example, after a bad car accident, a person who usually drives may avoid driving or riding in a car.
Arousal and reactivity symptoms include:
Arousal symptoms are usually constant, instead of being triggered by things that remind one of the traumatic events. These symptoms can make the person feel stressed and angry. They may make it hard to do daily tasks, such as sleeping, eating, or concentrating.
Cognition and mood symptoms include:
Cognition and mood symptoms can begin or worsen after the traumatic event, but are not due to injury or substance use. These symptoms can make the person feel alienated or detached from friends or family members.
It is natural to have some of these symptoms after a dangerous event. Sometimes people have very serious symptoms that go away after a few weeks. This is called acute stress disorder, or ASD. When the symptoms last more than a month, seriously affect ones ability to function, and are not due to substance use, medical illness, or anything except the event itself, they might be PTSD. Some people with PTSD dont show any symptoms for weeks or months. PTSD is often accompanied by depression, substance abuse, or one or more of the other anxiety disorders.
Do children react differently than adults?
Children and teens can have extreme reactions to trauma, but their symptoms may not be the same as adults. In very young children (less than 6 years of age), these symptoms can include:
Older children and teens are more likely to show symptoms similar to those seen in adults. They may also develop disruptive, disrespectful, or destructive behaviors. Older children and teens may feel guilty for not preventing injury or deaths. They may also have thoughts of revenge. For additional information, visit the Learn More section below. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) offers free print materials in English and Spanish. These can be read online, downloaded, or delivered to you in the mail.
Anyone can develop PTSD at any age. This includes war veterans, children, and people who have been through a physical or sexual assault, abuse, accident, disaster, or many other serious events. According to the National Center for PTSD , about 7 or 8 out of every 100 people will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. Women are more likely to develop PTSD than men, and genes may make some people more likely to develop PTSD than others.
Not everyone with PTSD has been through a dangerous event. Some people develop PTSD after a friend or family member experiences danger or harm. The sudden, unexpected death of a loved one can also lead to PTSD.
Why do some people develop PTSD and other people do not?
It is important to remember that not everyone who lives through a dangerous event develops PTSD. In fact, most people will not develop the disorder.
Many factors play a part in whether a person will develop PTSD. Some examples are listed below. Risk factors make a person more likely to develop PTSD. Other factors, called resilience factors, can help reduce the risk of the disorder.
Risk Factors and Resilience Factors for PTSD
Some factors that increase risk for PTSD include:
Some resilience factors that may reduce the risk of PTSD include:
Researchers are studying the importance of these and other risk and resilience factors, including genetics and neurobiology. With more research, someday it may be possible to predict who is likely to develop PTSD and to prevent it.
Treatments and Therapies
The main treatments for people with PTSD are medications, psychotherapy (talk therapy), or both. Everyone is different, and PTSD affects people differently so a treatment that works for one person may not work for another. It is important for anyone with PTSD to be treated by a mental health provider who is experienced with PTSD. Some people with PTSD need to try different treatments to find what works for their symptoms.
If someone with PTSD is going through an ongoing trauma, such as being in an abusive relationship, both of the problems need to be addressed. Other ongoing problems can include panic disorder, depression, substance abuse, and feeling suicidal.
The most studied medications for treating PTSD include antidepressants, which may help control PTSD symptoms such as sadness, worry, anger, and feeling numb inside. Antidepressants and other medications may be prescribed along with psychotherapy. Other medications may be helpful for specific PTSD symptoms. For example, although it is not currently FDA approved, research has shown that Prazosin may be helpful with sleep problems, particularly nightmares, commonly experienced by people with PTSD.
Doctors and patients can work together to find the best medication or medication combination, as well as the right dose. Check the U.S. Food and Drug Administration website (http://www.fda.gov/ ) for the latest information on patient medication guides, warnings, or newly approved medications.
Psychotherapy (sometimes called talk therapy) involves talking with a mental health professional to treat a mental illness. Psychotherapy can occur one-on-one or in a group. Talk therapy treatment for PTSD usually lasts 6 to 12 weeks, but it can last longer. Research shows that support from family and friends can be an important part of recovery.
Many types of psychotherapy can help people with PTSD. Some types target the symptoms of PTSD directly. Other therapies focus on social, family, or job-related problems. The doctor or therapist may combine different therapies depending on each persons needs.
Effective psychotherapies tend to emphasize a few key components, including education about symptoms, teaching skills to help identify the triggers of symptoms, and skills to manage the symptoms. One helpful form of therapy is called cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. CBT can include:
Exposure therapy. This helps people face and control their fear. It gradually exposes them to the trauma they experienced in a safe way. It uses imagining, writing, or visiting the place where the event happened. The therapist uses these tools to help people with PTSD cope with their feelings.
Cognitive restructuring. This helps people make sense of the bad memories. Sometimes people remember the event differently than how it happened. They may feel guilt or shame about something that is not their fault. The therapist helps people with PTSD look at what happened in a realistic way.
There are other types of treatment that can help as well. People with PTSD should talk about all treatment options with a therapist. Treatment should equip individuals with the skills to manage their symptoms and help them participate in activities that they enjoyed before developing PTSD.
How Talk Therapies Help People Overcome PTSD
Talk therapies teach people helpful ways to react to the frightening events that trigger their PTSD symptoms. Based on this general goal, different types of therapy may:
Beyond Treatment: How can I help myself?
It may be very hard to take that first step to help yourself. It is important to realize that although it may take some time, with treatment, you can get better. If you are unsure where to go for help, ask your family doctor. You can also check NIMH's Help for Mental Illnesses page or search online for mental health providers, social services, hotlines, or physicians for phone numbers and addresses. An emergency room doctor can also provide temporary help and can tell you where and how to get further help.
To help yourself while in treatment:
Caring for yourself and others is especially important when large numbers of people are exposed to traumatic events (such as natural disasters, accidents, and violent acts). For more information, see the Learn More section, below.
Next Steps for PTSD Research
In the last decade, progress in research on the mental and biological foundations of PTSD has lead scientists to focus on better understanding the underlying causes of why people experience a range of reactions to trauma.
PTSD Awareness Month
This yearduring a global pandemic that has created significant challenges for so many peoplePTSD Awareness Month comes at a time of increased public attention to how racism affects people of color.
PTSD and Racial Minorities
Racial minorities are more likely than whites to have PTSD. One explanation for these differences may be that racial minorities have more frequent exposure than whites to some types of traumatic events.
For example, racial minorities are more likely to live in areas with higher rates of community violence. But higher risk of being exposed to a traumatic event only partially explains the racial differences in PTSD prevalence. Additional factors are involved, including those that could affect recovery, such as the ongoing stresses of poverty and limited access to mental health care.
PTSD and Racial Discrimination
Racial discrimination is associated with worse physical and mental health and poorer quality of life. Growing evidence also points to experiences with racial discrimination as a factor that increases the risk of PTSD for racial and ethnic minorities.
Extreme experiences, such as racially-motivated physical or sexual assaults, meet the classic definition of a traumatic stressor: exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence. Whether experiences of racial discrimination that are less severe, such as verbal threats, can be said to cause PTSD is a topic of debate among experts, but it is clear that these other kinds of experiences are related to increased risk of PTSD.
Events known as microaggressionseveryday, more subtle experiences that communicate hostility or are derogatory toward a particular groupcan also contribute to the overall negative impact of racism on mental health.
Based on these known negative health effects of systemic racism and the racial disparities in PTSD, we are committed to promoting a focus on issues of race, racism, and cross-cultural competence in National Center for PTSD research and education projects.
Understanding the relationship of race
and racism to PTSD are critical aspects of PTSD awareness.
If you or someone you know has PTSD, reach out. PTSD is a
treatable disorder, and there are a variety of effective
Children are not immune to the challenges of post-traumatic stress disorder. The National Child Traumatic Stress Institute (NCTSI) states that more than two-thirds of children have reported at least one traumatic experience by the age of 16.15? Additionally, it is estimated that 19 percent of injured and 12 percent of physically ill youth have PTSD.
Potential Childhood Traumatic Experiences
Because children can have a more difficult time processing their experiences and coping with the lasting emotional impact of trauma, it is important for support people (caregivers, relatives, etc) to allow children the opportunity to talk about their experience. A critical part of a child's recovery and healing is their support system. Having a strong support system and access to trauma-informed care is essential to their healthy coping and overall healing.
For Loved Ones
Finding ways to support a loved one with PTSD can be a struggle. One of the most helpful things you can do is learn about the symptoms and the challenges of living with post-traumatic stress disorder? Becoming familiar with what your loved one might be experiencing can help increase compassion and understanding, making it easier to have conversations about their challenges.
Inviting and encouraging your loved one to seek help from a trained professional is paramount. Since unaddressed symptoms of PTSD can become more severe over time, it is important to try and help your loved one find helpful resources to begin the healing process.
Do not be afraid to ask your loved one about their experiences and be open to actively listening. You are not expected to "fix" anything, just allow your loved one space to talk openly without fear of judgment or criticism.
Ask your doctor or mental health professional for a recommendation or referral to someone who specializes in treating PTSD.
If you or a loved one are struggling
with PTSD, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health
Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at
1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment
facilities in your area.
Yes, children can have PTSD. However, a child can have a very different reaction to a traumatic event than an adult. Some of the possible symptoms include:
Below is a checklist of problems or symptoms that people with PTSD can exhibit. Remember, you must seek a professional for an accurate diagnosis of PTSD. This checklist is provided only as a tool to help you talk with your doctor or treatment provider about your concerns and develop an action plan for successful recovery.
I have repeated, disturbing memories, thoughts,
or images of a stressful experience from the
past. I suddenly act or feel as if a stressful
experience were happening again (as if you were
reliving it). I have physical reactions (e.g., heart pounding,
trouble breathing, or sweating) when something
reminds me of a stressful experience from the
past. I have repeated, disturbing dreams of a
stressful experience from the past. I feel very upset when something reminds me of a
stressful experience from the past. I avoid thinking about or talking about a
stressful experience from the past or avoid having
feelings related to it. I avoid activities or situations because they
remind me of a stressful experience from the
past. I have trouble remembering important parts of a
stressful experience from the past. I feel emotionally numb or unable to have loving
feelings for people close to me. I have lost interest in things that I used to
enjoy. I feel as if my future will somehow be cut
short. I feel irritable. I feel distant or cut off from other people. I have trouble falling or staying asleep. I have angry outbursts. I am super alert or watchful. I feel jumpy or easily startled. I have difficulty concentrating.
I have repeated, disturbing memories, thoughts, or images of a stressful experience from the past.
I suddenly act or feel as if a stressful experience were happening again (as if you were reliving it).
I have physical reactions (e.g., heart pounding, trouble breathing, or sweating) when something reminds me of a stressful experience from the past.
I have repeated, disturbing dreams of a stressful experience from the past.
I feel very upset when something reminds me of a stressful experience from the past.
I avoid thinking about or talking about a stressful experience from the past or avoid having feelings related to it.
I avoid activities or situations because they remind me of a stressful experience from the past.
I have trouble remembering important parts of a stressful experience from the past.
I feel emotionally numb or unable to have loving feelings for people close to me.
I have lost interest in things that I used to enjoy.
I feel as if my future will somehow be cut short.
I feel irritable.
I feel distant or cut off from other people.
I have trouble falling or staying asleep.
I have angry outbursts.
I am super alert or watchful.
I feel jumpy or easily startled.
I have difficulty concentrating.
Suicidal Ideation Among Veterans With PTSD
Every day, approximately 20 veterans die by suicide and up to 14% of veterans report current suicidal ideation. Veterans suffer disproportionately from mental health disorders, including PTSD, depression, and substance abuse. Up to 15% of veterans have PTSD, and those diagnosed with this disorder have high rates of suicidal behavior and suicide. Emotional responses to trauma have been shown to play an important role in PTSD and may increase the risk for suicidal behavior. Given the high rate of suicide among veterans, there is a pressing need to identify risk factors for suicidal behavior.
Katherine C. Cunningham, PhD, from the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the VA Mid-Atlantic Mental Illness Research, Education, and Clinical Center, Durham, North Carolina, and colleagues investigated the role of that shame plays in PTSD and suicidal ideation. They used the Mississippi Scale for Combat-Related PTSD to gauge PTSD severity, the Personality Assessment Inventory to evaluate suicidal ideation, and the Internalized Shame Scale to assess shame among 189 men and 12 women who were veterans, with a mean age of 40 years. Whites made up 48.3% of the study population, blacks made up 44.8%, Native Americans 2%, white Hispanics 3%, and others 2%.
PTSD and shame together accounted for
a significant degree of the variance in suicidal ideation.
However, although shame had significant effects on both
suicidal ideation and PTSD, and PTSD had an indirect effect
on suicidal ideation via shame, shame did not have an
indirect effect on suicidal ideation via PTSD symptoms. The
authors suggest that these findings indicate that shame
drives the relationship between PTSD and suicidal
Every year in the United States, more than 45,000 people take their own lives. Every one of these deaths leaves an estimated six or more "suicide survivors" people who've lost someone they care about deeply and are left with their grief and struggle to understand why it happened.
The grief process is always difficult, but a loss through suicide is like no other, and the grieving can be especially complex and traumatic. People coping with this kind of loss often need more support than others, but may get less. There are various explanations for this. Suicide is a difficult subject to contemplate. Survivors may be reluctant to confide that the death was self-inflicted. And when others know the circumstances of the death, they may feel uncertain about how to offer help. Grief after suicide is different, but there are many resources for survivors, and many ways you can help the bereaved.
What makes suicide different
The death of a loved one is never easy to experience, whether it comes without warning or after a long struggle with illness. But several circumstances set death by suicide apart and make the grief process more challenging. For example:
A traumatic aftermath. Death by suicide is sudden, sometimes violent, and usually unexpected. Depending on the situation, survivors may need to deal with the police or handle press inquiries. While you are still in shock, you may be asked whether you want to visit the death scene. Sometimes officials will discourage the visit as too upsetting; at other times, you may be told you'll be grateful that you didn't leave it to your imagination. "Either may be the right decision for an individual. But it can add to the trauma if people feel that they don't have a choice," says Jack Jordan, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and co-author of After Suicide Loss: Coping with Your Grief.
You may have recurring thoughts of the death and its circumstances, replaying the final moments over and over in an effort to understand or simply because you can't get the thoughts out of your head. Some suicide survivors develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an anxiety disorder that can become chronic if not treated. In PTSD, the trauma is involuntarily re-lived in intrusive images that can create anxiety anda tendency to avoid anything that might trigger the memory.
Stigma, shame, and isolation. Suicide can isolate survivors from their community and even from other family members. There's still a powerful stigma attached to mental illness (a factor in most suicides), and many religions specifically condemn the act as a sin, so survivors may understandably be reluctant to acknowledge or disclose the circumstances of such a death. Family differences over how to publicly discuss the death can make it difficult even for survivors who want to speak openly to feel comfortable doing so. The decision to keep the suicide a secret from outsiders, children, or selected relatives can lead to isolation, confusion, and shame that may last for years or even generations. In addition, if relatives blame one another thinking perhaps that particular actions or a failure to act may have contributed to events that can greatly undermine a family's ability to provide mutual support.
Mixed emotions. After a homicide, survivors can direct their anger at the perpetrator. In a suicide, the victim is the perpetrator, so there is a bewildering clash of emotions. On one hand, a person who dies by suicide may appear to be a victim of mental illness or intolerable circumstances. On the other hand, the act may seem like an assault on or rejection of those left behind. So the feelings of anger, rejection, and abandonment that occur after many deaths are especially intense and difficult to sort out after a suicide.
Need for reason. "What if" questions may arise after any death. What if we'd gone to a doctor sooner? What if we hadn't let her drive to the basketball game? After a suicide, these questions may be extreme and self-punishing unrealistically condemning the survivor for failing to predict the death or to intervene effectively or on time. Experts tell us that in such circumstances, survivors tend to greatly overestimate their own contributing role and their ability to affect the outcome.
"Suicide can shatter the things you take for granted about yourself, your relationships, and your world," says Dr. Jordan. Many survivors need to conduct a psychological "autopsy," finding out as much as they can about the circumstances and factors leading to the suicide, in order to develop a narrative that makes sense to them. While doing this, they can benefit from the help of professionals or friends who are willing to listen without attempting to supply answers even if the same questions are asked again and again.
Sometimes a person with a disabling or terminal disease chooses suicide as a way of gaining control or hastening the end. When a suicide can be understood that way, survivors may feel relieved of much of their what-if guilt. It doesn't mean someone didn't love their life. The grieving process may be very different than after other suicides.
A risk for survivors. People who've recently lost someone through suicide are at increased risk for thinking about, planning, or attempting suicide. After any loss of a loved one, it's not unusual to wish you were dead; that doesn't mean you'll act on the wish. But if these feelings persist or grow more intense, confide in someone you trust, and seek help from a mental health professional.
Support from other survivors
Research suggests that suicide survivors find individual counseling (see "Getting professional help") and suicide support groups to be particularly helpful. There are many general grief support groups, but those focused on suicide appear to be much more valuable.
"Some people also find it helpful to be in a group with a similar kinship relationship, so parents are talking to other parents. On the other hand, it can be helpful for parents to be in a group where they hear from people who have lost a sibling they may learn more about what it's like for their other children," says Dr. Jordan.
Some support groups are facilitated by mental health professionals; others by laypersons. If you go and feel comfortable and safe feel that you can open up and won't be judged that's probably more important than whether the group is led by a professional or a layperson. Lay leaders of support groups are often themselves suicide survivors; many are trained by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
For those who don't have access to a group or feel uncomfortable meeting in person, Internet support groups are a growing resource.
You can join a support group at any time: soon after the death, when you feel ready to be social, or even long after the suicide if you feel you could use support, perhaps around a holiday or an anniversary of the death.
Getting professional help
Suicide survivors are more likely than other bereaved people to seek the help of a mental health professional. Look for a skilled therapist who is experienced in working with grief after suicide. The therapist can support you in many ways, including these:
Immediately after the suicide, assistance from a mental health professional may be particularly beneficial if you experience any of the following:
A friend in need
Knowing what to say or how to help after a death is always difficult, but don't let fear of saying or doing the wrong thing prevent you from reaching out to suicide survivors. Don't hold back. Just as you would after any other death, express your concern, pitch in with practical tasks, and listen to whatever the person wants to tell you. Here are some special considerations:
Stay close. Families often feel stigmatized and cut off after a suicide. If you avoid contact because you don't know what to say or do, family members may feel blamed and isolated. Whatever your doubts, make contact. Survivors learn to forgive awkward behaviors or clumsy statements, as long as your support and compassion are evident.
Avoid hollow reassurance. It's not comforting to hear well-meant assurances that "things will get better" or "at least he's no longer suffering." Instead, the bereaved may feel that you don't want to acknowledge or hear them express their pain and grief.
Don't ask for an explanation. Survivors often feel as though they're being grilled: Was there a note? Did you suspect anything? The survivor may be searching for answers, but your role for the foreseeable future is simply to be supportive and listen to what they have to say about the person, the death, and their feelings.
Remember his or her life. Suicide isn't the most important thing about the person who died. Share memories and stories; use the person's name ("Remember when Brian taught my daughter how to ride a two-wheeler?"). If suicide has come at the end of a long struggle with mental or physical illness, be aware that the family may want to recognize the ongoing illness as the true cause of death.
Acknowledge uncertainty. Survivors are not all alike. Even if you are a suicide survivor yourself, don't assume that another person's feelings and needs will be the same as yours. It's fine to say you can't imagine what this is like or how to help. Follow the survivor's lead when broaching sensitive topics: "Would you like to talk about what happened?" (Ask only if you're willing to listen to the details.) Even a survivor who doesn't want to talk will appreciate that you asked.
Help with the practical things. Offer to run errands, provide rides to appointments, or watch over children. Ask if you can help with chores such as watering the garden, walking the dog, or putting away groceries. The survivor may want you to sit quietly, or perhaps pray, with him or her. Ask directly, "What can I do to help?"
Be there for the long haul. Dr. Jordan calls our culture's standard approach to grief the "flu model": grief is unpleasant but is relatively short-lived; after a stay at home, the bereaved person will jump back into life. Unfortunately, that means that once survivors are back at work and able to smile or socialize again, they quickly get the message that they shouldn't talk about their continuing grief.
Even if a survivor isn't bringing up
the subject, you can ask how she or he is coping with the
death and be ready to listen (or respect a wish not to talk
about it). Be patient and willing to hear the same stories
or concerns repeatedly. Acknowledging emotional days such as
a birthday or anniversary of the death by calling or
sending a card, for example demonstrates your support
and ongoing appreciation of the loss.
PTSD and Suicide:
How Emergency Department Clinicians Can Intervene
Trauma is a well-documented risk factor for suicidal thoughts and behaviors (LeBouthillier, McMillan, Thibodeau, & Asmundson, 2015). A diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is one of the strongest predictors of both recent and lifetime suicide attempts, with a comorbid diagnosis of depression and PTSD further amplifying the risk for suicide (Bryan, 2016). Research also indicates that individuals diagnosed with PTSD who, at some point, experience suicidal ideation (SI) have an increased likelihood of transitioning to a suicide attempt compared to those who are diagnosed with other psychiatric disorders (Nock et al., 2009). Therefore, providers who treat clients with a trauma history and/or those diagnosed with PTSD are urged to continually monitor and assess for SI using well-validated assessment measures.
PTSD often includes somatic problems that motivate patients to seek treatment in either primary care or emergency department (ED) settings (Greene, Neria, & Gross, 2016; Onoye et al., 2013). Given this, one place that mental health clinicians may be able to successfully identify and intervene for those most at risk for suicide is in EDs. From 2001 to 2016, rates of ED visits for nonfatal self-harm, a primary risk factor for suicide, increased by 42% (Stone et al., 2018). In addition, it was estimated that as many as one in ten individuals who died by suicide had been seen in an ED during the prior two months (Bowers et al., 2018). This observation highlights EDs as a crucial setting for suicide assessment and prevention. As ED psychiatric services are frequently required to assess a high number of patients and provide a clinical opinion about their future risk for suicide, the need for reliable and valid suicide assessment protocols is critical.
Risk Factors Associated with Suicide Assessment Instruments
Identifying standardized instruments that can reliably and validly assess suicidal behavior has been a focus of research for decades (Cochrane-Brink, Lofchy, & Sakinofsky, 2000; Cull & Gill, 1988; Jobes & Drozd, 2004; Russ, Kashdan, Pollack, & Bajmakovic-Kacila, 1999; Yufit & Lester, 2005). A recent systematic review suggests that researchers developing these instruments have typically focused on identifying and validating risk factors and sets of suicidal predictors in order to assess a persons risk of suicide (Runeson et al., 2017). These risk factors have been reported to cluster into two domains: socio-demographic factors and clinical factors (Bisconer & Gross, 2007; Large et al., 2011). Some of these factors include: a history of deliberate self-harm, hopelessness, male gender, substance use, unemployment, feelings of guilt or inadequacy, social isolation, depressed mood, a family history of suicide, and a diagnosis of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia (Cull & Gill, 1988; Large et al., 2011; Links & Hoffman, 2005; Ruiz, 2001; Russ et al., 1999; Stack & Wasserman, 2005).
Researchers have identified clients seen in inpatient settings as a subpopulation that presents with slightly different risk factors for suicide compared to those who are seen in outpatient clinical settings (Large et al., 2011). A history of a suicide attempts was the strongest predictor of death by suicide among inpatients. Moderate predictors include depressed mood, a family history of suicide, being prescribed an antidepressant medication, a diagnosis of schizophrenia, and feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, inadequacy, or guilt (Large et al., 2011). Interestingly, weak predictors for in-patient suicide included a higher number of previous psychiatric admissions and a suicide attempt at the time of admission (Large et al., 2011). Additionally, this meta-analysis identified no demographic factor as significantly associated with inpatient suicide (Large et al., 2011). Moreover, physical illness, co-morbid substance abuse, the presence of hallucinations, delusional beliefs, or treatment with antipsychotic medication were also not significantly associated with suicide for patients receiving inpatient care (Large et al., 2011).
These research findings underscore the difficulty of relying on a singular assessment tool to detect all of the varied risk factors when determining suicide risk. Although, these research findings suggest that specific socio-demographic factors and clinical factors contribute to an individuals risk for suicide, setting also influences an individuals potential risk. It is clear that each of these factors must be thoroughly considered when designing, selecting, and utilizing an assessment tool that will help a clinician predict an individuals risk of suicide.
Selection of an Assessment Instrument
Ideally, each high-risk patient seen in a hospital setting should be assessed with a clinical interview in addition to a measure that can reliably and validly detect factors that may place them at an increased risk for suicide. Overall, current research is clear that assessment instruments should never be a substitute for a clinical interview, as interviews can address multiple areas of a patients life that may be contributing to their increased risk for suicide (Links & Hoffman, 2005; Podlogar et al., 2016; Stone et al., 2018). Assessments should be used to augment a clinical interview and the results should be used to inform the clinicians decision to hospitalize or discharge the patient. Some of the most widely accepted instruments used to detect risk of suicide include the Beck Anxiety Inventory (BAI; Beck & Steer, 1993a), the Suicide Probability Scale (SPS; Cull & Gill, 1988), the Adult Suicidal Ideation Questionnaire (ASIQ; Reynolds, 1991), the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9; Kroenke, Spitzer, & Williams, 2001), the Beck Scale for Suicide Ideation (BSS; Beck & Steer, 1993c), the Beck Hopelessness Scale (BHS; Beck & Steer, 1993b), and the Beck Depression Inventory II (BDI-II; Beck, Steer, & Brown, 1996).
Research at a psychiatric hospital evaluated the ability of the SPS, ASIQ, BSS, BHS, BDI-II, and the BAI to distinguish between patients who were admitted for suicidal behavior and patients admitted for other reasons (Bisconer & Gross, 2007). Results indicated that the BAI, BHS, and BSS, while face valid for suicidal behaviors, did not perform as well as the SPS, ASIQ, and BDI-II. Additionally, while the SPS and ASIQ were specifically designed to assess suicide behaviors, results suggested that the BDI-II was the overall best predictor of suicide risk compared to the SPS and ASIQ (Bisconer & Gross, 2007).
In addition, Baryshnikov et al. (2018) used the BDI, BHS, and the BAI to identify which scale best detected risk for suicide by inpatients in context with the patients personality characteristics as measured by the BIG-5 Inventory (McCrae & John, 1992). Results of their study revealed that suicidal inpatients with high levels of neuroticism and extroversion were best identified using the BHS (Baryshnikov et al., 2018), Moreover, having a low level of perceived social support increased the predictive validity of the BHS with these patients, helping to explain both state and trait variations of hopelessness as it relates to risk for suicide (Baryshnikov et al., 2018). These results suggest that an individuals personality traits also influence the usefulness of a suicide risk assessment measure.
The PTSD and Suicide Screener (PSS; Briere, 2013) is a less known, 14-item self-report measure that is designed to quickly screen for PTSD and suicide risk. This screener contains two scales: the PTSD Risk (PR) and the Suicide Risk (SR). The SR contains four items that assess for suicide risk. The PSS is effective as a quick indication that a patient may be experiencing SI. However, its limitations include the nuanced ways that SI is experienced among individuals, which may not be fully captured in fourteen questions.
Results of these studies highlight a major limitation of existing assessment measures; relying on single-construct measures such as PTSD, depression, hopelessness, historical factors, or level of overt suicidal intent to determine an individuals risk of suicide (Hawes, Yaseen, Briggs, & Galynker, 2017). It is evident that single-construct assessment measures are not able to adequately capture all of the nuanced ways that setting, sociodemographic, cultural, and personality characteristics influence a persons risk for suicide. This may also help to explain why, to date, there is no singular assessment instrument that demonstrates predictive validity for death by suicide (Runeson et al., 2017). An additional limitation of using a single construct assessment measures is missing data. Research shows that when participants skip suicide risk screening items it does not occur completely at random (Podlogar et al., 2016). Selective nondisclosure by inpatients can be intentional and is likely to predict a subpopulation of respondents who have some level of elevated risk, based on the information they do not endorse (Podlogar et al., 2016). Missing data could lead a psychologist to mistakenly discharge an inpatient if they do not identify and address the specific items that the patient skipped.
In general, these limitations highlight the need for hospitals to use suicide risk protocols that encompass multiple assessment instruments in order to capture all of the unique factors that could contribute to a patients increased risk for suicide.
Future Directions for Risk of Suicide Assessment Instruments
To address the lack of multi-factor assessment instruments, recent suicide risk assessments have turned to a multi-informant approach for assessing a patients risk for suicide. The Modular Assessment of Risk for Imminent Suicide (MARIS) was developed to assess a patients short-term suicide risk following hospital discharge (Hawes et al., 2017). This assessment instrument combines both the patients self-report and the clinicians evaluation of the patients risk for suicide into one singular score (Hawes et al., 2017). Interestingly, the patients self-report does not contain items overtly referring to their suicidal history, ideation, or intent but the clinicians portion of the assessment does (Hawes et al., 2017). It is the combination of these two scores that define an inpatients short-term risk for suicide (Hawes et al., 2017). Results of Hawes et al. (2017) suggests that the MARIS demonstrated adequate predictive validity for detecting high-risk psychiatric inpatients who will engage in suicidal behavior during the four to eight weeks following hospital discharge. This research identified the use of multi-informant approaches as a promising area for future directions within the field of suicide risk assessment instruments.
As clinicians, our ethical principles dictate that we do our best when assessing patients who express SI and intent (APA, 2013; Bongar, 1991). Assessment instruments that measure risk of suicide include the BAI, SPS, ASIQ, PHQ-9, BSS, BHS, BDI-II, and the PSS. Overall, results indicate that using single factor assessment measures are problematic due to the varied and nuanced ways that patients characteristics influence a variety of risk factors that increase their risk for suicide. Recent advances in suicide risk assessment measures have demonstrated predictive validity for multi-informant approaches, making these a prominent area of future research. These types of approaches are aligned with APA guidelines that outline the usefulness of both a clinical interview and an assessment battery to adequately evaluate a patients risk for suicide. While death by suicide remains a national public health concern in the U.S., EDs have a unique opportunity to identify and intervene for those most at risk, in part through the creation of valid and reliable assessment measures.
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National Center for
PTSD Just Released COVID Coach App
For Immediate Help, Call 24/7
How Common Is Suicide?
No matter how rare it is, suicide is always very tragic. It is hard to say exactly how many suicides occur.
Overall, men are more likely to die by suicide than women. For example, from 1999-2010, the average suicide rate among U.S. males was 19.4 out of every 100,000, compared to 4.9 out of every 100,000 females. The difference in suicide rates between men and women is also true among Veterans.
Does Trauma Increase a Person's Suicide Risk?
Going through a trauma may increase a person's suicide risk. For example, there is evidence that childhood abuse and sexual trauma may increase a person's suicide risk. Among Veterans, some studies have found that combat trauma is related to suicide, while other studies have not. In this research, combat trauma survivors who were wounded more than once or put in the hospital for a wound had the highest suicide risk. This suggests suicide risk in Veterans may be affected by how intense and how often the combat trauma was. Does PTSD increase a person's suicide risk?
Why is suicide risk higher in trauma survivors? It may be because of the symptoms of PTSD or it may be due to other mental health problems, like depression. Studies show that suicide risk is higher in persons with PTSD. Some studies link suicide risk in those with PTSD to distressing trauma memories, anger, and poor control of impulses. Further, suicide risk is higher for those with PTSD who have certain styles of coping with stress, such as not expressing feelings.
Research suggests that for Veterans with PTSD, the strongest link to both suicide attempts and thinking about suicide is guilt related to combat. Many Veterans have very disturbing thoughts and extreme guilt about actions taken during times of war. These thoughts can often overwhelm the Veteran and make it hard for him or her to deal with the intense feelings.
Can PTSD Treatment Help?
A person can benefit from cognitive behavioral treatments (CBT) for PTSD if suicidal thoughts are able to be managed on an outpatient basis. For example, a study of female rape survivors who received such treatment found that as PTSD symptoms decreased during treatment, suicidal thoughts also became less common. This effect lasted for 5-10 years after treatment ended. More research is needed, but having a good relationship with a mental health provider can help persons with PTSD make the best treatment decisions.
Given the link between PTSD and suicidal thoughts/behaviors, if you have PTSD and are involved in mental health treatment, your suicide risk will likely be regularly assessed. If the provider learns that immediate risk for suicide is high based on his/her assessment, they will make appropriate treatment decisions to ensure safety. If the immediate risk for suicide is not high and suicide risk can be managed safely on an outpatient basis, the provider may suggest treatment for PTSD.
What Can I Do?
I am suicidal
If you are ever thinking about suicide and feel unsafe:
Everyone feels down from time to time. If you have thoughts about hurting yourself, seek professional help. Many people who have thoughts of suicide also struggle with depression or with drinking or drug problems. There are many places to get help. See Get Help in a Crisis for resources.
Someone I know is suicidal
You may come in contact with a family member, friend, or coworker who is thinking about suicide. When someone tells you they have these thoughts, you may feel scared and unsure what to do. It is even harder if the person tells you in secret and you feel pressure not to tell others.
If someone you know is thinking about suicide, this is a serious matter. It can be very hard to gauge the level of danger. A mental health professional is the best person to decide how much danger there is.
Someone I know has died by suicide
It is very upsetting when someone you know dies by suicide. Getting over the shock and distress will be especially hard if you felt close to them, if you saw the event, or if you have your own mental health issues.
Grieving the loss of a loved one is a natural process. It may take several months to feel "normal" again after someone you know dies by suicide. Due to the traumatic nature of suicide, you may go through what's known as "traumatic grief." If you are feeling intense grief or guilt several months after the suicide, contact a mental health provider for help. Many people feel guilty about not having prevented the suicide. Be aware, though, that suicide is never your fault. Suicide is complex with many factors that contribute.
It can also be difficult to cope when
a loved one has made a suicide attempt. You can access
education products for family members of Veterans who have
made a suicide attempt, including a Family Resource Guide
and information about how to talk to a child about a suicide
attempt. Some materials are also available in Spanish.
Although these products were created with military families
in mind, resources and information included in them may be
useful for non-military families as well.
Connection Between PTSD and Suicide
In the United States, more than 48,000 people commit suicide each year. Although women attempt suicide more so than men, men are more likely to die by suicide.1?
People who have experienced a traumatic event and/or have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may be more likely to attempt suicide.
Trauma, PTSD, and Suicide
In a survey of 5,877 people across the United States, it was found that people who had experienced physical or sexual assault in their life also had a high likelihood of attempting to take their own life at some point:2?
There Is Hope: Seeking Help
Experiencing a traumatic event and/or developing PTSD can have a tremendous impact on a person's life. The symptoms of PTSD can make a person feel constantly afraid and isolated. In addition, depression is common following a traumatic event and among people with PTSD.6?
escape from their symptoms, leading them to contemplate suicide.
It is important to realize that even
though it may feel as though there is no hope,
and healing is possible. If
you are having thoughts of ending your life or if you know
someone who is having these thoughts, it is important to
seek help as soon as possible.
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder happens when an individual experiences a horrifying ordeal that involves physical harm or the threat of physical harm. The physical harm or threat could have happened to the individual with PTSD, or the individual could have witnessed it happen to a loved one or a stranger. PTSD was first brought to public attention in relation to war veterans but a variety of traumatic events can cause PTSD including:
Not everyone who goes through a traumatic event will develop PTSD and it is unclear why some people develop PTSD and some do not.
PTSD symptoms typically start soon after the traumatic event occurs, but symptoms can also occur months or years later. Symptoms can come and go over a course of years, or they can be consistent. If symptoms last more than 4 weeks, interfere with your work or home life, or cause you a great amount of anguish, you might have PTSD.
Below are the 4 types of symptoms of PTSD:
Who can get PTSD?
Anyone at any age can get PTSD. This includes war veterans and survivors of physical and sexual assault, abuse, accidents, disasters and many other traumatic events. Not everyone with PTSD has been through a dangerous event. Some people get PTSD after a friend or family member experiences danger or harm. The sudden, unexpected death of a loved one can also cause PTSD.
Why do some people get PTSD and other people do not?
Not everyone who lives through a traumatic event gets PTSD. In fact, most will not get the disorder. Many factors play a part in whether a person will get PTSD. Some of these are risk factors that make a person more likely to get PTSD. Other factors, called resilience factors, can help reduce the risk of the disorder. Some of these risk and resilience factors are present before the trauma and others become important during and after a traumatic event.
Risk factors for PTSD include:
Resilience factors that may reduce the risk of PTSD include:
Researchers are studying the importance of various risk and resilience factors. With further researcher, it should become possible to predict who is likely to get PTSD, how resilience can be learned and prevent it.
How is PTSD detected?
The PTSD diagnosis can be made by a medical doctor, or mental health professionals such as a psychologist, social worker, or psychotherapist. The diagnosis is made after the doctor talks with the person who has symptoms of PTSD.
To be diagnosed with PTSD, a person must have all of the following for at least 1 month:
How is PTSD treated?
The main treatments for people with PTSD are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), medications, or a combination of the two. There are several parts to CBT, including:
Exposure therapy. This therapy helps people face and control their fear. It exposes them to the trauma they experienced in a safe way. It uses mental imagery, writing, or visits to the place where the event happened. The therapist uses these tools to help people with PTSD cope with their feelings.
Cognitive restructuring. This therapy helps people make sense of the bad memories. Sometimes people remember the event differently than how it happened. They may feel guilt or shame about what is not their fault. The therapist helps people with PTSD look at what happened in a realistic way.
Stress inoculation training. This therapy tries to reduce PTSD symptoms by teaching a person how to reduce anxiety. Like cognitive restructuring, this treatment helps people look at their memories in a healthy way.
Everyone is different, so a treatment
that works for one person may not work for another. It is
important for anyone with PTSD to be treated by a mental
health care professional who is experienced with PTSD. Some
people with PTSD need to try different treatments to find
what works for their symptoms. If someone with PTSD is going
through an ongoing trauma, such as being in an abusive
relationship, both of the problems need to be treated. Other
ongoing problems can include panic disorder, depression,
substance abuse and feeling suicidal.
With Suicidal Thoughts With PTSD
For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.
Each year, more than 48,000 people in the United States commit suicide.1? Research shows that people with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, people with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, are at a higher risk to attempt suicide or have suicidal thoughts.2? The reasons for this are divided into studies on PTSD and suicide. It may be the PTSD itself causes a higher risk for suicidal thoughts or suicide or it may be that other existing psychiatric conditions, such as depression or anxiety, increase the risk.
Given this, if you've experienced a traumatic event or have PTSD, it's important to be alert for suicidal thoughts and develop ways of coping with them. Catching and addressing these thoughts early on can prevent them from spiraling into a suicide attempt.
There are several coping strategies that can help defuse suicidal thoughts, but don't wait for a crisis situation to try them. Look them over now and come up with a plan for the next time you experience suicidal thoughts. It's ideal if you can work with a therapist in developing such a plan
Here are some suggestions to cope with suicidal thoughts.
Stay Away From Weapons
A suicide attempt will be more likely to occur if you have the means readily available to you, such as guns, knives, or other weapons, or unnecessary medications in your home.3? Remove these from your environment; take steps to remove your access (locking the items and giving someone the key) or go somewhere you won't have access to those means.
Theres no single cause of depression, according to research. Brain chemistry, hormones, genetics, life experiences and physical health can all play a role.4?
Go Someplace Safe
Identify several places you can go where you would be less likely to hurt yourself, such as public places like the mall, a coffee shop or restaurant, a busy park, a community center, or a gym.
Once there, immerse yourself in that environment. Pay attention and be mindful of all the sights and sounds around you. Doing this will help put some distance between you and your suicidal thoughts.
Talk to Someone Supportive
Social support can be a wonderful way of coping when you're in a crisis. Call a family member or friend. Let them know you need someone to talk to and would like their support. Change your environment by asking them if you can spend some time with them.
Talk to a Therapist
Some therapists have ways for their patients to contact them outside of the session if they're in crisis. If you have a therapist and you have a system like this in place, you should contact your therapist when you're experiencing suicidal thoughts.
Your therapist can help you assess the seriousness of the situation, as well as assist you in coming up with ways of coping with those thoughts.
Caution: In finding a therapist know that most therapists, even psychiatrists, have received no training in suicidality and in many states, no training is necessary to receive a liense. The ideal therapist is a trained therapist and one who does continuing education every 6 years of less to know what is current. - Editor
Challenge Suicidal Thoughts
When people feel down and depressed, it's common to have thoughts that are consistent with those moods. As our moods change, so will our thoughts. Therefore, even though things may feel hopeless, this may just be a consequence of your mood and not necessarily how things really are.
Is it not possible that your mood might change? Is there really no hope for the future? Have you felt like this before, and if so, did things eventually get better? Ask yourself questions like these to challenge your thoughts of hopelessness.
Be Mindful of Your Thoughts
Another way of coping with suicidal thoughts is with mindfulness. Take a step back from your thoughts and watch them. Imagine your thoughts as clouds drifting across the sky.
Try not to look at your thoughts as good or bad, but simply as thoughts or objects in your mind. Taking a mindful approach to thoughts of suicide or hopelessness can defuse them, limiting the power they have over your actions and mood.
Manage Your Mood
By improving your mood, you may also improve your thoughts, reducing your risk of suicide.
Go to the Emergency Room
If these coping strategies arent working to lessen suicidal thoughts, call the police or a mental health crisis line, or go to your local emergency room. This can be scary, but it's most important for you to stay safe and alive.
Find a Therapist If You Don't Have One
Finally, if you don't have a therapist and are experiencing suicidal thoughts, it's important to get a psychiatric evaluation, as well as a therapist.
Suicidal thoughts are a sign that you
may some immediate need help with your symptoms. You can
find PTSD treatment providers in your area through the
Center for PTSD.
can't turn my bain off": PTSD and burnout threaten
The coronavirus patient, a 75-year-old man, was dying. No family member was allowed in the room with him, only a young nurse.
In full protective gear, she dimmed the lights and put on quiet music. She freshened his pillows, dabbed his lips with moistened swabs, held his hand, spoke softly to him. He wasnt even her patient, but everyone else was slammed.
Finally, she held an iPad close to him, so he could see the face and hear the voice of a grief-stricken relative Skyping from the hospital corridor.
After the man died, the nurse found a secluded hallway, and wept.
A few days later, she shared her anguish in a private Facebook message to Dr. Heather Farley, who directs a comprehensive staff-support program at Christiana Hospital in Newark, Del. Im not the kind of nurse that can act like Im fine and that something sad didnt just happen, she wrote.
Medical workers like the young nurse have been celebrated as heroes for their commitment to treating desperately ill coronavirus patients. But the heroes are hurting, badly. Even as applause to honor them swells nightly from city windows, and cookies and thank-you notes arrive at hospitals, the doctors, nurses and emergency responders on the front lines of a pandemic they cannot control are battling a crushing sense of inadequacy and anxiety.
Every day they become more susceptible to post-traumatic stress, mental health experts say. And their psychological struggles could impede their ability to keep working with the intensity and focus their jobs require.
Although the causes for the suicides last month of Dr. Lorna M. Breen, the medical director of the emergency department at NewYork-Presbyterian Allen Hospital, and John Mondello, a rookie New York emergency medical technician, are unknown, the tragedies served as a devastating wake-up call about the mental health of medical workers. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, their professions were pockmarked with burnout and even suicide.
On Wednesday, the World Health Organization issued a report about the pandemics impact on mental health, highlighting health care workers as vulnerable. Recent studies of medical workers in China, Canada and Italy who treated Covid-19 patients found soaring rates of anxiety, depression and insomnia.
To address the ballooning problem, therapists who specialize in treating trauma are offering free sessions to medical workers and emergency responders nationwide. New York City has joined with the Defense Department to train 1,000 counselors to address the combat-like stress. Rutgers Health/RWJ Barnabas Health, a New Jersey system, just adopted a Check You, Check Two initiative, urging staff to attend to their own needs and touch base with two colleagues daily.
Physicians are often very self-reliant and may not easily ask for help. In this time of crisis, with high workload and many uncertainties, this trait can add to the load that they carry internally, said Dr. Chantal Brazeau, a psychiatrist at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.
Even when new Covid-19 cases and deaths begin to ebb, as they have in some places, mental health experts say the psychological pain of medical workers is likely to continue and even worsen.
As the pandemic intensity seems to fade, so does the adrenaline. Whats left are the emotions of dealing with the trauma and stress of the many patients we cared for, said Dr. Mark Rosenberg, the chairman of the emergency department at St. Josephs Health in Paterson, N.J. There is a wave of depression, letdown, true PTSD and a feeling of not caring anymore that is coming.
Screw all of you now I see exactly why the only thing left to do is suicide. a Facebook post by a St. Louis paramedic in April
After Kurt Becker, a paramedic firefighter in St. Louis County, saw that post, which included a profanity-laced screed of frustration and despair over the job, he sent a copy to the mans therapist with a note saying, You need to check this out.
Im reading this, and Im ticking off each comment with, stress marker, stress marker, stress marker, said Mr. Becker, who manages a 300-person union district. (The writer is in treatment and gave permission for the post to be quoted.)
ImageKurt Becker, a paramedic firefighter in St. Louis County, has been urging his union members to seek therapy during the pandemic.
Kurt Becker, a paramedic firefighter in St. Louis County, has been urging his union members to seek therapy during the pandemic.Credit...Whitney Curtis for The New York Times
The paramedics are part of a warrior culture, Mr. Becker said, which sees itself as a tough, invulnerable caste. Asking for help, admitting fear, is not part of their self-image.
Mr. Becker, 48, is himself the grandson of a bomber pilot and son of a Vietnam veteran. But his local has been hit by a dozen suicides since 2004, and he has become an advocate for the mental health of its members. To maintain his equilibrium, he works out and sees a therapist.
Recently, he has been getting more requests than usual for the unions peer-support team and its roster of clinicians who understand the singular experiences of emergency medical workers.
The virus scares the hell out of our guys, he said. And now, when they go home to decompress, instead, they and their spouses are home schooling. The spouse has lost a job, and is at wits end. The kids are screaming. Let me tell you: The tension level in the crews is through the roof.
Many besieged health care workers are exhibiting what Alynn Schmitt McManus, a St. Louis-based clinical social worker, calls betrayal trauma.
They feel overwhelmed and abandoned by fire chiefs who, she said, rarely acknowledge the newly relentless demands of the job.
Many paramedics, she added, are aggressive and depressed. They are so committed to the work, they are such good human beings, but they feel so compromised now.
Brendan, who asked for his last name to be withheld to protect his privacy, is a 24-year-old paramedic firefighter who works 48-hour shifts on the tough north side of St. Louis. His unit has been so busy running calls that he goes for long stretches without showering, eating or sleeping. He is terrified he might infect his fiancée and their daughter.
We got a letter from our chief saying that theres a national shortage of gloves, gowns, masks and goggles because the public is taking them, he said. Then we walk into Walmart and see that 90 percent of the people have better masks than we do.
With no end in sight to the crisis, Brendan sought out a therapist.
We are a lot quicker to be angry with each other, he said. Any little thing sends us over the edge. But among the older guys in their late 30s and 40s, its not OK to talk about things. So all anyone talks about is alcohol.
They were coming in very sick and deteriorating so fast. I was carrying a lot inside me, and I was very sad when I came home. I was feeling like I wasnt doing a good job. My mother-in-law is a nurse, and she saw I needed help so she connected me with a therapist. Kristina, a nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens
Therapists around the country, many affiliated with the Trauma Recovery Network, which includes a large New York team, have been lining up to offer free treatment to medical workers. But the number of requests for help has been modest.
People are nervous that if they pause to get treatment, theyll crash, said Karen Alter-Reid, a psychologist and the founder of the Fairfield County Trauma Response Team in Connecticut, who has treated disaster-relief workers at school shootings and hurricanes.
The reasons to offer front-line workers specialized trauma therapy now are both to forestall destructive symptoms from settling in long-term, and to patch up depleted people so they can keep doing their jobs with the intensity demanded of them.
Since mid-March, Dr. Alter-Reids group has been treating dozens of emergency medical technicians, doctors and nurses. What distinguishes this pandemic as a traumatic experience, she said, is that no one knows when it will end, which protracts anxiety.
Medical teams, she noted, keenly miss the familial, visceral contact. They are used to hugs, backslaps, and sharing beers after a rough shift. Now, safety strictures have shut all that down.
Through Zoom group therapy, the crews have been regaining some semblance of solidarity as they unburden with each other, unmasked, through a computer screen, hearing everyone talk about similar struggles: Living away from families, to keep them safe. The smell of disinfectant in their clothes and hair. The clumsy haz-mat gear.
In the sessions, Dr. Alter-Reid instructs them to tap on their desktops. The tapping is integral to her technique, a well-studied trauma treatment called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing.
As they tap, which can sound like group drumming, she asks them to recall a challenging case when they each prevailed, and to share it.
Through these sessions, she tries to help them subdue memories of fear, failure and death so they can summon their innate resilience: Remember what you can do.
I have nightmares that I wont have my P.P.E. I worry about my patients, my co-workers, my family, myself. I cant turn my brain off. Christina Burke, an I.C.U. nurse at Christiana Hospital, Newark, Del.
A nagging detail sticks in Christina Burkes mind like a burr. Not only is hers the last face that patients see before they die, but because of her mandatory mask, all they glimpse are her eyes.
Her identity as a compassionate nurse feels diminished. She longs to lift up her mask and reveal her full self to patients.
At 24, Ms. Burke has already worked in an intensive care unit for three years. She has loved the connections she made with patients and their families, but those experiences are now largely gone.
I cant imagine one of my relatives on their last breath with a stranger, said Ms. Burke, who is close to her own family but hasnt been able to visit them for two months.
One recent day, overcome with sleeplessness and despondency, she contacted Bridget Ryan, a member of the hospitals peer support program. In Ms. Ryans office, she tearfully unloaded.
Christina Burke (right), an I.C.U. nurse at Christiana Hospital, and her peer counselor Bridget Ryan both cried during a counseling session.
Christina Burke (right), an I.C.U. nurse at Christiana Hospital, and her peer counselor Bridget Ryan both cried during a counseling session.Credit...Erin Schaff/The New York Times
A March study in JAMA Psychiatry looked at the psychological impact of the epidemic on health care workers in 34 Chinese hospitals, reporting that nurses, especially women, carried the heaviest burdens. They had elevated rates of anxiety, depression and insomnia.
The prevalence of burnout and suicide among medical professionals has been widely studied. As the pandemic invaded the West Coast earlier this year, Stanford psychologists gathered focus groups in their medical system to explore how to shore up mental health.
Researchers flagged workers limited capacity to manage Covid-19; their fears of contaminating family members; the moral code-bending decisions about when to use limited, life-saving resources. But much distress could be headed off if hospital leadership created a proactive, supportive culture that included ways for workers to express concerns and feel heard, the researchers wrote in JAMA.
ChristianaCare, a four-state health system, began assembling such a protocol five years ago. The program provides group support and daily inspirational texts. Twice a week, doctors and staff meet senior leaders. It set up designated oasis rooms, outfitted with low lights, massage chairs and meditation materials, where stressed workers take a breather.
Were trying to provide them with psychological first aid, said Dr. Farley, an emergency medicine physician who directs ChristianaCares Center for WorkLife Wellbeing.
Peer counselors are quickly available. No one else understands what were going through, Ms. Burke, the I.C.U. nurse, said. It doesnt sound like much, but that program has changed the world for us.
At the end of her meeting with Ms. Ryan, the two women, both in surgical masks, shared a social-distance-defying hug. Ms. Burke said she emerged refreshed. For the first time in two months, she slept through the night.
To address safety fears, ChristianaCare offers disposable scrubs, which workers tear off at the end of a shift. It also has a gratitude program, in which former patients return to thank their healers. At a time when so many Covid-19 patients are dying, such exchanges, said Dr. Farley, reconnect demoralized staff to why we do what we do.
Dr. Farley and her team check on hospital crews, pushing carts loaded with hand lotion, anti-fog lens cleaner, protein bars, chocolate and solace.
Every time, Dr. Farley said, There is someone crying with me, and its 3 a.m. Theyre exhausted. They need this.
I see all these people coming in to the hospital now who are really sick, and Im wondering, could this be me one day? There are a lot of unknowns. And the anxiety is amplified, knowing what happened in my household. Dr. Andrew Cohen, an emergency medicine physician at St. Josephs University Medical Center, Paterson, N.J.
When Dr. Andrew Cohen, 45, is working his shift at the hospitals emergency department, he is fine. He has the thick emotional skin characteristic of his high-octane profession. He dons his gear, turns his adrenaline up to a quiet, steady hum and focuses on saving lives.
But hours before the shift starts, he becomes foggy, anxious, hesitant. And as soon as it ends, he performs a cleansing ritual that even he labels over the top. That is because he has discovered, in a brutal manner, that he cannot leave the job behind.
For nearly a decade, Dr. Cohen and his wife shared their home with her parents, a practicing pulmonologist and a retired nurse, who often babysat for the Cohens children, now 8 and 11. But in March, both in-laws became ill with Covid-19 and were admitted to the hospital within a day of each other.
Dr. Cohens mother-in-law, Sharon Sakowitz, 74, died first.
On the day of her funeral, the hospital called the Cohens: now the father-in-laws organs were shutting down. The Cohens rushed to the hospital. Dr. Barry Sakowitz, 75, died that morning. A few hours later, they buried Mrs. Sakowitz.
Still mourning, Dr. Cohen wonders, Did I bring this virus into my house? As he prepares to go to work, My son says, Daddy, be very, very careful, and I know what hes thinking.
The guilt threatens to swamp him. What if he is the third person in this household to die?
After the shift, Dr. Cohen photocopies his notes, so theres no risk he leaves with paper that might have coronavirus on it. He cleans his stethoscope, pens, goggles, face shield and the bottom of his sneakers with antimicrobial wipes. He does a surgical hand wash, up to his elbows.
He changes into a clean set of scrubs, putting the dirty ones in a plastic bag, and walks through the hospital parking lot. Sitting in his car, he sprays the bottom of his shoes with Lysol.
At home, he removes his sneakers and scrubs, leaving them in a box in the garage, and heads to the shower. Only after will he allow himself to embrace his family.
How long will Dr. Cohen march through this meticulous ritual? When will fear loosen its grip?
Weve always been told to
suck it up and move on, he said. He wonders: When his
own emotional crash comes, when colleagues start unraveling,
Will there be people there to help us?