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Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is under the spotlight on Carte Blanche this Sunday in light of a planned classed action by a group of police officers who plan to sue the State for refusing to allow them to be medically boarded for the condition.

They say, despite ongoing psychiatric treatment and the need for critically essential medication, they’ve been dismissed, suspended, victimised or denied occupational injury leave.

Is PTSD a real illness?

PTSD , as in the case of most mental illnesses, is often not seen as a “real” concern or “valid” illness. Even today, many regard mental illness as a sign of weakness, attention-seeking behaviour, and, in the case of certain illnesses, even as a moral failing.

Judgement of people with mental illness and misperceptions are often not only the result of ignorance, but also because people traditionally view the mind and the body as two separate entities, and not as interlinked.

PTSD affects the mind and the body, manifesting both emotionally and physically. Fortunately, the thinking around this condition is slowly changing. This change is evident in countries such as the United States which now recognises the symptoms as an illness. Vietnam veterans are being viewed in a different light, support services are offered to members of the police, programmes have subsequently been put in place to treat soldiers returning from Iraq, and people exposed to trauma in other settings such as natural disasters are supported in an attempt to pre-empt the development of PTSD.

Locally, counselling programmes have been put in place to support crime victims. How much perceptions have changed in South Africa is, however, unclear.

The stigma unfortunately still persists, especially against men, and many are hesitant to admit that they are not coping and reluctant to seek help when symptoms first appear.

How to recognise PTSD

PTSD, classified as an anxiety disorder , arises as an immediate, delayed and/or protracted response to a traumatic or stressful event of an exceptionally threatening or catastrophic nature. Example of such events would be natural disasters, acts of terrorism such as bomb blasts, hijackings and physical assault.

Stressors that might trigger PTSD must be outside the range of typical human experience. Problems such as grieving the loss of a loved one or marital conflict are not considered severe enough to lead to PTSD. People who have PTSD are those who:

Have experienced, witnessed or were confronted with a traumatic event that involved the threat of death or serious injury to themselves or others, causing them to respond with intense fear, helplessness or horror. Persistently re-experience the event through intrusive thoughts, dreams, acting or feeling as if the event were reoccurring, and/or intense distress and emotion when exposed to cues that symbolise or resemble the event. Avoid stimuli associated with the event and attempt to numb their general responsiveness by avoiding thoughts, feelings, conversation, activities, places or people associated with the trauma. An inability to recall important aspects of the trauma and loss of interest in participating in activities. Feel detached from others, have a restricted range of emotions and are often unable to have loving relationships. Feel little hope for their future. Experience symptoms of increased emotional stimulation such as difficulty sleeping, irritability or angry outbursts, difficulty concentrating, increased vigilance and exaggerated or startled responses.

The above-mentioned disturbances will continue for at least a month and cause significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning.

In general, people with PTSD respond to situations more intensely than those who do not have the disorder. Whereas others may respond with denial, a person with PTSD will respond by withdrawing and may turn to alcohol, drugs or suicide. Unable to work through their feelings, they become incapable of love and work. These feelings of distress may lead to anxiety disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, generalised anxiety disorder, acute stress disorder and depression. (Ilse Pauw, March 2011)

Where to go for help

Phone the helpline of the South African Depression and Anxiety Group for free telephonic counseling and support: 0800567567 suicide or visit their website at www.sadag.co.za for a support group in your area.