In South Africa, our high levels of crime have left many people traumatised. Being affected by crime can lead a person to have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Here’s a look at PTSD – and how to cope with it.
Linda (36)* lives in Johannesburg and was held at gunpoint in her home early one morning. She tried to deal with her feelings of anger, irritability, flashbacks and depression on her own. She even moved to try and escape the memories and constant anxiety, but that didn’t help. “I thought I could handle it myself,” she says. “After all, I survived and I wasn’t injured at all, just freaked out. I really didn’t think it was so bad – you hear so much worse on the news.”
But the one place you should feel safe is at home, and the paranoia and flashbacks became too much. Her irritability and putting on 14kgs from trying “to make everything go away” also made her colleagues notice something was wrong. Eventually, after three months, she went for counselling and was diagnosed with PTSD.
“Looking back, I don’t know what I was scared of,” says Linda. “People were so supportive and once I’d opened up and got the help I needed, my life got back on track.”
We live in a violent country, where so many have had experiences like Linda, and been exposed to crime such as rape, hijackings, armed robberies, sexual and physical abuse. While police and security experts recently welcomed the news that violent crime had declined, Professor Kopano Ratele, co-director of the Safety and Peace Promotion Unit at the Medical Research Council still describes South Africa as an “unbelievably violent country”. Many South Africans have been traumatised by crime, and experience PTSD, yet don’t seek help.
Cassey Chambers, operations manager for the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), says a reason for this is that because crime can be so violent, many people feel they have ‘got off lightly’ if they have ‘just’ been through a smash-and-grab or had a car accident. “They feel guilty about feeling vulnerable, exposed and traumatised,” she says.
For many, getting help is a long process of denial and silent suffering. According to SADAG, far too many of the estimated 6 million South Africans who suffer from PTSD don’t get the help or support they need. If you’re suffering from PTSD it’s important to get help so you can deal with your thoughts and emotions and move on with your life.
WHAT IS PTSD?
PTSD can develop after a traumatic experience – an experience that is unexpected, involves a threat of life or safety, and affects your emotions and thoughts. SADAG states that experts believe about a quarter to a third of people who witness a traumatic incident develop PTSD. It can even occur in the friends or family members of those who experienced the actual trauma.
If you’ve been through a traumatic experience and are having trouble getting back to your regular life and reconnecting to others, you may be suffering from PTSD.
Some symptoms of PTSD are:
• Persistent flashbacks
• Constant thoughts or memories of the trauma
• Nervous and jumpy
• Scared of loud noises and sudden movements
• Staying away from things that remind you of the trauma
• Not talking about how you feel or what happened
• Self-medication by drugs, alcohol, smoking
When you have PTSD, you may be so overwhelmed by your negative emotions that you feel you’ll never feel OK again. But help is available – and you’re not alone. Know that you’ll be able to overcome the symptoms of PTSD.
Steps to recovery:
• If you suspect you may be suffering from PTSD, it’s best to go for therapy as soon as possible. When looking for a therapist for PTSD, look for mental health professionals who specialise in the treatment of trauma and PTSD. You can start by asking your doctor if he or she can provide a referral or ask other trauma survivors for recommendations. The sooner PTSD is dealt with, the easier it is to overcome. • Keep in mind that PTSD isn’t a sign of weakness, and the only way to overcome it is to confront what happened to you and learn to accept it as a part of your past.
• Remember the symptoms are part of the trauma – they will pass eventually.
• Feelings of guilt are normal – it’s part of taking back control.
• Don’t try to numb your painful memories and feelings with alcohol or drugs. This could just make the situation worse.
• Talk about your experience in detail.
• Avoid going on holiday, or on leave, and don’t make any drastic life changes – face your fears rather than avoid them.
• Gradually get back to your normal routine.
• Understand this is a process – it takes time.
If you’ve experienced trauma and want to chat to a counsellor, contact:
SADAG’s toll-free line dedicated to trauma and PTSD on 0800 20 50 26. (Open 8am to 8pm, seven days a week)
loveLife’s youth line on 0800 121 900 (Open 9:00am to 9:00pm on Mondays to Fridays; Open 12:00am to 5:00pm on Saturdays)
*Name has been changed
By Thandiwe McCloy