Post traumatic stress disorder: Why it may be on the increase

Everyone will at some point in a life time have life threatening deeply hurtful and upsetting experiences. Some people recover in a few days but some don’t. Vera Onana writes about this disorder and how it can be handled.

For Temilayo Omooba, a young academic, sleep has eluded him in the last three months and the night time has become his undoing. Before any of the nightmares and insomnia, Temilayo had a very healthy sleep routine, but all changed after he was attacked by a six-man gang of armed robbers. He tried escaping by the whiskers, but was severely beaten. He had almost lost hearing ability in his left ear due to the innumerable stinging slaps the gun men had inflicted on him. Though all the locks had been changed, Temilayo could barely shut his eyes for an hour straight before screaming out loud.

Temilayo, like several other Nigerians suffer such fate. In most cases, it is erroneously referred to as spiritual attack and in some other cases, people close to them, discard it as excessive fear, but it is in fact a medical condition that has to do with the mental well being of a person known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

According to psychologists, PTSD is a condition that may develop after a person is exposed to one or more traumatic events. It is an anxiety disorder that may develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which severe physical harm occurred. Events that overwhelm one with feelings of hopelessness and helplessness can trigger PTSD, especially if such event felt unpredictable and uncontrollable.

Experts say that, sexual assault, warfare, serious injury, accidents, violence or threats of imminent death and other events that result in feelings of intense fear, horror and powerlessness, will trigger a fight, flight, or freeze response, which is a person’s nervous system’s reaction to danger. Normally, people recover in a few days or weeks, but when that does not happen, it means that the person is suffering from PTSD.


Who can be affected by PTSD

PTSD can affect people who personally experienced a life threatening event, those who witnessed the event, or those who pick up the pieces afterwards, such as emergency workers. It can also result from surgery performed on children so young that couldn’t understand what was happening to them, leaving them shattered, psychologists say.

In this part of the world however, this form of disorder may often times be regionalised or ascribed to people of certain colours. While people suffer from the same condition here, Nigerians may most likely refer to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as an ‘oyinbo’ man’s sickness or a demonic attack but how true is this?

Consultant Psychiatrist and Head of Clinical Services at Synapse Services, Lagos Branch, Dr Otefe Edebi, in an attempt to dispel such misguided perceptions said “I believe that this is a misconception about PTSD. It can happen to anyone, white, black, Hispanic, African, you name it. Though, people have various tolerance levels.”


Symptoms of PTSD: Everyone is different

Psychologists are of the opinion that PTSD develops differently from person to person because everyone’s nervous system and tolerance for stress differs. While the symptoms of PTSD most commonly develop in the hours or days following the traumatic event, it can sometimes take weeks, months, or even years before they appear. The symptoms experienced by individuals may include re-experiencing the traumatic event which is usually characterised by upsetting memories, flashbacks and nightmares. Feelings of distress or intense physical reactions when reminded of the event like sweating, palpitations and nausea.

Another trend symptoms may take is avoiding reminders of the trauma. People in such categories avoid activities, places or thoughts that remind them of the trauma or are unable to remember important aspects of the event. They may also feel detached from others and are emotionally numb.

Another class of symptoms can be summed up as increased anxiety and emotional arousal which includes trouble sleeping, irritability or outbursts of anger, difficulty concentrating, feeling jumpy and easily startled, and hypervigilance. Other symptoms may include guilt, depression, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts.


PTSD in Nigeria may be escalating because…

Though this condition may be perceived as foreign, it is prevalent here and as a matter of fact, escalating. Dr Passy Amaraegbu, a clinical Psychologist, in an article published in one of the national dailies recently, gives the reason for the escalating rate of PTSD in African countries as thus: “In most African societies, victims of rape are stigmatised, and by this expression of such a negative cultural norm, such people are further exposed to PTSD. Instead of assisting them, our society criminalises and crticises them.”

“They are erroneously judged as being wayward and deserving the evil fate which had befallen them. Such adding of insult to an already putrefying sore only exacerbates the traumatic situation they find themselves.”

Amaraegbu added that “the dearth of professional personnel and adequate equipment to handle PTSD is yet another reason why this group of psychological disorders is increasing in leaps and bounds. For instance in Nigeria, the health centres that can provide professional attention for PTSD are psychiatric and university teaching hospitals, a few general hospitals, some university clinics or health centres and a few private clinics. The few psychologists are overburdened with work.”


Alleviating PTSD symptoms

Though there are some easy help tips that a person can observe, like exercising, mindful breathing and volunteering, it is best to see a professional. Dr Edebi said “I feel that psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, mental health professionals generally would do better by telling their success stories so that the general public will be better informed. I can boldly say that we have had far more successful rates with most mental conditions than the spiritual homes especially when treatment is sought early. Most of those so called demonic attacks are not actually demonic attacks, but people are ignorant and just run off to spiritual homes.”