This June's Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Month comes at an unprecedented moment in American history. Go ahead and open your favorite news webpage: I can wait. There is a good chance the headline is a story about pandemic deaths, mass civil unrest or economic devastation. As many military combat veterans knew all along, traumatic events can befall anyone at any time. Millions of other Americans knew this truth, including those who have survived sexual assault, abuse, natural disasters or who walk the path of a first responder. In 2020 however, perhaps like no other year in memory, the collective American "we" have experienced the bitter taste of trauma and its repercussions.
American hospitals have bravely met the pandemic head-on. From the start, agencies took a laser focus on increasing access to ICU beds and personal protective equipment, among other urgent priorities. Amidst this mobilization of resources to protect pulmonary function, there were also efforts to preserve the psyches of our workforce. Hospitals recognized the PTSD-related risks the pandemic posed and employed methods of decreasing the emotional toll facing front-line health care workers. That said, we must still pause to ponder how our staff and we have fared psychologically through this year’s many trials, particularly as time goes by and we move away from the immediate crisis response.
Trauma-informed management and care provision will likely become more critical for all health systems as we move away from the medical surge and shift to grappling with the psychosocial aspects of the current chaos. Trauma responses (including re-experiencing the event through painful memories, insomnia or feeling chronically "on edge") can take weeks or months to emerge after the stressors dissipate. For those with pre-existing PTSD, new tragedies of the year can trigger relapse. The good news is that mental health professionals know how to treat PTSD, and recovery is entirely possible. The discouraging news is that most sufferers never seek help.
June 2020 is time to take action to address the often-invisible drain PTSD invokes on our well-being. So, I have one more request before we conclude. Go ahead and close down that news webpage you opened and surf over to www.ptsd.va.gov. That is the home page for the National Center for PTSD. There you can access a wealth of information and tools, including a Partner Tool Kit that can help your organization raise public understanding of PTSD and spread the word that treatment is available and works for many people.
There are many reasons hospitals should bring our voices together to advocate for advancing the public health and ending long-standing social inequities. Today, would you consider directing your voice to the millions of people struggling in the aftermath of trauma? You have already done so much this year. But help for PTSD is out there. Let us spread the word.
Jesse Burgard is a clinical psychologist and regional chief mental health officer for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and an AHA Behavioral Health Services Council member.