Survivors of traumatic injuries and illnesses face not only a long road to physical recovery, but also emotional recovery. There may be an assumption by both patients and those in their lives that the mere survival of a traumatic medical event, such as stroke, heart attack, sudden cardiac arrest, severe physical trauma and cancer would lead to long-term euphoria and joy due to survival of a life-threatening event. Perhaps in the initial days and weeks following the event, one may experience the “survivor’s high”, however, for some patients this high is followed by a dramatic downward spiral made up of survivor’s guilt, questions of purpose, flashbacks, self-destructive behaviors, anxiety, insomnia, depression, suicidal ideation and persistent ruminations about the event. These patients are in the grips of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and are at an increased risk for suicide.
National Suicide Prevention Week 2014: “Suicide Prevention: One World Connected,” sponsored by the American Association of Suicidology, is Monday, September 8th through Sunday, September 14th and surrounds World Suicide Prevention Day on Wednesday, September 10th. The Wilton Volunteer Ambulance Corps (WVAC) is promoting the World Suicide Prevention Day – 10 September, 2014 – by asking citizens to Light a Candle near a Window at 8 PM to show support for suicide prevention, to remember a lost loved one, and for the survivors of suicide.
For medical patients, the ability to distance oneself from the illness or event is particularly difficult because they are actually instructed by their physicians to pay attention to their bodies. In cases of heart attack or sudden cardiac arrest, patients must monitor their blood pressure, heart rate, comply with a new medication regimen and be vigilant about responding to symptoms that may signal a second event.
It comes as no surprise that those suffering from PTSD have a higher incident of drug and alcohol abuse. In fact, a large survey of people within the United States revealed that 34.5% of men who had PTSD also experienced problems with substance abuse. A similar rate was also found in women. It is also important to note is that almost twice as many men (51.9%) specifically reported alcohol abuse as compared to women (27.9%).
PTSD often presents with several other co-morbid disorders, such as depression, anxiety and panic disorder. Sleep disorders are also prevalent. In particular, sleep apnea may actually intensify symptoms of PTSD. When a person experiences PTSD along with other disorders such as depression and anxiety, the risk for suicide increases.
Recently, Dr. Donald Edmondson and his colleagues studied PTSD caused by cardiovascular events. They discovered that one in every eight heart attack survivors developed PTSD, and that those who did were twice as likely to have another heart attack or die in the three years following the first event. “This is the same disorder most people think about (associated) with combat survivors or sexual assault,” says Edmondson, an assistant professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center in New York. “The symptoms are similar. It’s diagnosed the same way.”
It is assumed that most people strive for self-preservation and have an innate fear of death. However, individuals suffering from PTSD along with co-morbid illnesses such as depression and anxiety may long for relief from the mental torture that replays over and over their mind. Instead, they develop a fear of living and death by suicide may seem the only resolution. The natural instinct of self-preservation is replaced by maladaptive, self-destructive actions and behaviors – the ultimate being suicide. This is difficult for both patients and family members to understand as it contradicts the natural assumption that the survivor “should” be forever grateful and blissfully content with having a second chance at life. Instead, survivors may struggle constantly with the following thought: “intellectually I know I am lucky to be alive, but emotionally all I can think about is ending my life.”
Awareness of and ability to recognize and intervene in such a mental health crisis is one of the greatest gifts we can give. If you know someone who is suffering there is help available that may one-day allow them to see light through the darkness.
The Wilton Volunteer Ambulance Corps Inc. is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation.