Imagine if we treated “mental health trauma” with the same urgency and commitment as physical trauma.

22 Apr

Wikipedia defines a medical trauma as a “serious and body-altering physical injury, such as the removal of a limb.” Psychological trauma is described as “an emotional or psychological injury usually resulting from an extremely stressful or life-threatening situation.” I’m inventing my own variation on these terms: “mental health trauma.” I define this as “a serious and life-altering emotional injury, such as the death of one’s child.”

When I imagine a typical response to a victim of a car accident or other physical trauma, scenes from Grey’s Anatomy and ER flash through my mind:

  • Teams of medical professionals, working urgently and comprehensively until the physical trauma patient is stable.
  • Once the patient is stable, the rehabilitation process starts. Doctors and specialists work as a team to make sure that the patient comes to a full recovery.
  • Physical therapy is often painful, but doctors insist that patients work through the pain to regain as much of their previous abilities as possible, and to learn to adapt to any long-term side effects.

Let’s compare this to someone who has recently experienced a “mental health trauma”:

  • Medical professionals aren’t involved unless the patient seeks them out.
  • No one works urgently or comprehensively with the patient — in fact, they often work cautiously and slowly, if at all.
  • Religious professionals, family, friends, and others sometimes offer advice, but mostly don’t know where to begin because they don’t have the tools. They are afraid to say or do the wrong thing in case they make the patient feel worse.
  • There’s no “mental health trauma standard of care” that could help the patient’s network of professionals, family, and friends to confidently and effectively provide support to the patient.
  • The most frequent advice given to a mental health trauma patient is, “find a support group.”

Next, let’s imagine a car accident victim being treated like this mental health trauma patient:

  • The ER doctor might say, “I heard you were in a car accident. I’m so sorry for your loss. How ARE you?”
  • The car accident victim (in shock, of course) says, “I can’t believe that just happened. DID that just happen? What happens next? How can I possibly survive this? Did I break my leg? Will I walk again?”
  • The doctor thinks about the various surgical and pharmacological treatments that could potentially be helpful to the patient, but he keeps them to himself because the patient is probably not really ready for anything that aggressive, having just been in a car accident.
  • Instead the doctor says, “When you are ready, I can tell you about how I’ve treated other car accident victims. Maybe we can try one of these treatments down the road — but only when you are ready, and only if you feel like you need it.”
  • The patient (still in shock) says, “I hurt so much. I just want to stay in bed and cry until it hurts less.”
  • The doctor says, “That’s totally fine. There’s no right or wrong way to recover from a car accident.”
  • As an afterthought, the doctor adds, “You should find a support group where you can talk with other people who have survived car accidents. Here are a couple brochures and websites. You can tell your story, and listen to other survivors’ stories. People who had car accidents years ago can tell you what they did to recover from their accident.”

Obviously this scenario is ridiculous, because:

  • Decades of scientific research and practice enable doctors to know exactly how to treat car accident victims.
  • Doctors don’t hesitate to recommend aggressive, urgent treatments for physical trauma.
  • Car accident victims today aren’t given the exact same treatment as car accident victims 20+ years ago, because there are new medical advancements every year.
  • Physical trauma patients aren’t invited to wait until they are “ready,” because the doctors know that the longer they wait, the harder the recovery will be.
  • Medical doctors don’t shy away from painful physical therapy or bad tasting medicine, because evidence shows that the long-term benefits are much more important than temporary discomfort.
  • Car accident victims typically aren’t told that they should meet regularly — perhaps for years to come — with other people who have been in accidents, to tell their stories and get comforted by others who have survived the same trauma.

I’m not suggesting that the treatments of physical and mental health traumas should be identical. But I am suggesting that maybe we need to take a closer look at what I consider to be the biggest difference: when a physical trauma occurs, the medical professionals are in the driver’s seat. The patient is only asked to consent to the recommended treatment; to agree to be passenger in the medical industry’s state-of-the-art car, driving through a pre-defined route on roads that are constantly tested and updated, going as fast as possible but within the legal speed limit. Destination: Recovery.

When a mental health trauma occurs, NO ONE is in the driver’s seat. Not the medical professionals or anyone else, because society tells them that a mental health trauma patient is fragile and different than a car accident victim. And certainly not the patient, because society tells us we are in no condition to drive. As  a result, most parents who lose children seem to end up stuck in their grief like a car up on blocks in the back yard. Destination: Support Group.

I’m not interested in a gentle, passive, when-I-am-ready-I’ll-join-a-support-group approach to my mental health trauma treatment. Like a car accident victim agreeing to painful physical therapy or bad-tasting medicine, I’m ok with temporary discomfort if it brings me long-term healing benefits. I want to take an urgent, comprehensive approach to my recovery from mental health trauma.

Maybe it’s time for someone to kick-start a new generation of grief treatment. Maybe this new generation can be focused on science, research, and ACTION, instead of support groups and years of talk therapy.

I’ve climbed into the driver’s seat. I don’t care if my roads are bumpy and my route takes some twists and turns, because I know I’m headed in the direction I want to go.

Destination: Happiness & Joy. 

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Posted by on April 22, 2011 in month 2


4 responses to “Imagine if we treated “mental health trauma” with the same urgency and commitment as physical trauma.

  1. Deb Mathews

    April 22, 2011 at 7:44 pm

    You are a genius at analyzing and articulating you grief and how to treat it… seems to me that your comparison with physical trauma has validity. I hope that you get in the driver’s seat to kick start a new generation of treatment. What a mission that will be. This post of yours should somehow make it to every mental health professional….and I’m sure you know just how to accomplish that!

  2. Mahtab

    April 24, 2011 at 7:48 am

    “most parents who lose children seem to end up stuck in their grief like a car up on blocks in the back yard”

    wow. how sad. and true. I’ve seen the death of a child completely derail a life.

    how beautiful and how brave that you won’t be that parent. and what a way to honor Julian- his life and his spirit- with your deeds and not just your words. I *know* with a knowing I can’t explain that he is proud of you.

  3. Beth Barrett

    April 24, 2011 at 11:54 am

    Emily, you continue to amaze me with your insight and your willingness to expose your own emotion. Your blog is profoundly thoughtful, inspiring and motivational to me. As a member of this generation – who you rightfully so urge to take action and make a drastic change in how we approach and treat “mental health trauma”, I offer myself to be part of your movement for help. One step in that process is to research, to identify the current professional literature and to reach out to those authors/expertsin the various fields who would be the cornerstone to your cry for change in how we approach treatment for grief. I am here for you and I am willing to take action to help!! Love you Emily, Beth

    • Emily

      April 25, 2011 at 2:31 pm

      Hi Beth, thank you so much for your kind words. And thank you for joining my “movement”! At this point it’s just a hypothesis, but my gut feeling is that our generation can handle — and *needs* — a different approach to grief and the process of grieving. Fortunately, there aren’t as many people in their 30s and 40s that have lost children, compared to people in their 50s and up. But the down side is that most of the books and other resources are written by and for the 50+ demographic, so it’s tough to 1) find books that are helpful to me, and 2) really know if my hypothesis of the needs of our generation is valid or not. I’m continuing to research this hypothesis, to see if I can prove myself wrong. I just ordered 8 more books on the topic — I have a lot of reading to do! I plan to add book reviews to this blog when I get through a few more.


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