Injuries take a heavy toll on mental health and well-being
I have helped people who have been injured for more than two decades now. Even though we are becoming more open and accepting about the wide range of help available to people who are suffering psychological distress, I continue to see the same shame and embarrassment in my clients that I saw at the beginning of my career when it comes to talking about their mental health struggles. I still frequently run into resistance when the treatment team member is a psychologist or psychiatrist instead of a physiotherapist, or when the medications being prescribed are anti-depressants, rather than anti-inflammatories.
Our mindset as a society needs to change. Given the many people I have seen in my office, who have been in tears, or in a panicked state, or plagued by recurring nightmares of their accident, I have no doubt that all these many clients have suffered a harm that is just as real and just as debilitating as their physical injuries.
I can recall countless tragic examples over the years, but consider just a few whose paths have crossed mine:
- There was the professional long haul truck driver – I will call him Terry. Terry was rear-ended while driving his rig in the Southern U.S. causing it to lose control and crash in the ditch. The rig caught on fire, the door was jammed shut, and Terry was trapped inside. His physical injury was actually caused by his repeated attempts to shove open the door with his shoulder, causing a bad shoulder injury. The real injury however was the psychological impact this terrifying accident had on him. He was so afraid when driving he could barely drive down a deserted gravel road, let alone highway 401 or U.S. Interstate. His panic couldn’t be calmed. He became so depressed that the social worker I engaged to treat him at his home (to avoid the need to drive to appointments) informed me that Terry kept a hangman’s noose strung over a rafter in his garage “in case he needed it”.
- I had the honour of acting for a first responder who I will call Justine. Justine was proud to have a career where she could help others. On her first major call, she attended an accident scene where someone had been decapitated….the victim’s head had been severed from his body. To her surprise, and with continued exposures to graphic and disturbing accident scenes, Justine developed incapacitating post traumatic stress disorder. A flashback episode could be triggered by seemingly random stimulus. She couldn’t leave her house, let alone work at her job. She was shocked when her long term disability benefit was cut off, which added financial pain to her emotional pain.
- “Jason” was a huge sports fan, who not only played sports but also coached teams. After his accident, his girlfriend left him, he gained weight due to inactivity, and he became very depressed. This “tough guy” grown man would frequently cry like a baby in my office with the feelings of despair that he felt for himself and his future. He couldn’t be productive at work owing to his psychological pain, even though his physical injury had healed. Although reluctant, he knew he needed professional help and with proper treatment was able to bounce back, but not before he spent many months in a cloud of darkness
- “Tony” was hit by a car on his way to work. He used to drive an hour each way to work and then back again and loved it. After his accident, he had some of the most severe driving anxiety and PTSD that I’ve ever seen in a client. With each of his family members who drove him to appointments he had experienced panic episodes when another car startled him. The intensity of his outburst could leave his family in tears. He had profound depression and required a complex cocktail of very strong anti-depressants and anti-psychotic medications. This was a professional man, an intelligent man, who had overcome any obstacle thrown into his path prior to his car accident. While the physical injury was bad enough, the blow to his mental health was devastating.
Over the years, I’ve had to grapple with clients who vocalize thoughts of self-harm. I’ve arranged emergency consultations with mental health professionals. I’ve given my personal cell number, and – thankfully – have been called at midnight before someone acted on those thoughts of self-harm. While I am not a trained mental health professional, I often remark that I am “half lawyer and half social worker” during my office visits which typically run 60-90 minutes in length (far longer than a family doctor can spend with a patient).
I’ve learned that a decline in mental health is “contagious”, with the effect of severe depression experienced by one member of the household, often cascading on to affect other members in the home.
I’ve learned to be genuine, to be compassionate, to be non-judgmental, and to be someone who can be trusted. My clients are looking for help, even when they don’t come out and ask for it. They will be more open in a safe environment where they know they won’t be judged or mocked. All of us need to bring this same approach to any encounter we might have with someone experiencing psychological malaise.
I have also learned that with timely treatments and medications, some of the best recovery rates for any type of disability can be seen in those suffering from psychological problems. So, “Let’s Talk”. Let’s get these issues out in the open, take away the stigma, and accept psychological injuries on the same footing as physical injuries.