How to Help Someone Experiencing PTSD
In 2015, Stephanie Lembo shared her story on Facebook. In a six-minute video that would go viral, Lembo wordlessly and tearfully described her Navy husband's fight with his mental health after returning home from deployment. We learn that he eventually took his own life, leaving Lembo and their children confused and devastated.
Lembo struggled to understand what had happened to her husband, why he had turned so suddenly into a person she barely recognized. She blamed herself for his death.
Later she learned what her husband had been struggling with, something she had never known about before: post-traumatic stress disorder.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a common anxiety disorder often associated with military veterans. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, about 15 percent of Vietnam veterans were diagnosed with PTSD as of the most recent study in the late 1980s, and between 11 and 20 percent of veterans of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have PTSD in any given year.
But PTSD can affect anyone who has experienced a traumatic experience or a series of traumatic experiences, like physical violence, sexual abuse or assault, a natural disaster, a death of someone important to them or a car accident.
About 3.5 percent of adults experience PTSD, said Marilyn Dornfeld, director of adult programming at the National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota. (The VA says 7 to 8 percent of people will experience it at some point in their lives.) The median age for onset of the disorder is 23, she said.
You can't control how your body or brain reacts to trauma, Dornfeld said. It's not your fault if you're experiencing PTSD. And there are so many resources you can, and should, turn to for help to get you through a difficult time.
"Somebody that is re-experiencing trauma does not need to feel ashamed about that," Dornfeld said. "They don't need to put it on themselves, they don't need to have all this guilt. (PTSD is) the way of themselves working out this problem they have, and it's the way their body is trying to get healthy. So how can we help them with this process?"
If you, like Lembo, are worried a loved one is experiencing PTSD, here are signs to look for and steps to take.
What can PTSD look like?
PTSD is not entirely predictable. Of two people who experience the same traumatic event, one might develop PTSD while the other is briefly shaken but fully recovers. And PTSD might not take hold immediately after a trauma—it can happen "a year later, a month later, a week later," Dornfeld said.
Everyone is different, but a person with PTSD might:
1. Have flashbacks. People who are coping with PTSD might re-live their trauma in the form of flashbacks, nightmares or frightening thoughts, Dornfeld said. Sometimes there's a trigger for these flashbacks, "other times it just happens—they're driving or riding in a bus and they re-experience these things." This can be really scary for the person going through it.
2. Avoid specific places or situations. You might notice that someone who has experienced trauma is "staying away from places or events or objects, anything that reminds them of their traumatic experience," Dornfeld said. "They're trying to avoid thoughts or feelings related to it."
3. Get startled or angry easily. A person experiencing PTSD might experience changes to their personality: "they could be startled really easily or be on the edge all the time" or have angry outbursts, trouble remembering things or negative thoughts about themselves, Dornfeld said.
Here's the National Center for PTSD's full breakdown of symptoms.
How can you help?
If you think your loved one is experiencing PTSD, you should:
1. Get them safe. If the person is having a panic attack or is a suicide risk, take immediate action to get them safe. If they're having a panic attack, take them away from the stressful situation and ask them to try to regulate their breathing by breathing in and out slowly, or blowing out their breath like they're blowing bubbles, Dornfeld said. Most importantly, ask them what they need in the situation.
2. Talk to them. Open lines of communication with your loved one about PTSD. Try to talk to them about what they're experiencing. Like Lembo's husband, they could be scared about the repercussions of acknowledging they're experiencing a mental illness. "It's terrifying and fearful and then they're embarrassed on top of it," Dornfeld said. If your loved one doesn't want to talk about it with you, put the ball in their court. Let them know that you care about them and you're open to talking about it anytime. Also remind them there are lots of places they can get help if they're experiencing distressing symptoms.
3. Help them find resources. If they're ready to seek a diagnosis or get help, show your loved one how many resources are available to them. Help them talk through their options for diagnosis and treatment, from meditation to group therapy to individualized therapy and treatments.
"They shouldn't feel ashamed to get help and get support," Dornfeld said. "We all need help and support in many different things in our life."