As car accident lawyers, we spend much of our time helping clients recover from the physical toll of accidents: spinal cord injuries, broken bones, brain injuries, and so on. But that is not the only kind of trauma a car accident can inflict. Less obvious, but just as devastating, are the mental health impacts that accident victims and their loved ones suffer long after physical wounds heal and life supposedly returns to “normal.”
In particular, survivors of car accidents frequently suffer from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, more commonly referred to as “PTSD,” a mental health affliction that can lay waste to a person’s wellbeing. Not only does PTSD cause severe emotional turmoil, it can also lead to physical ailments, personal struggles, and financial ruin.
Vehicle accident victims who find their lives upended by PTSD need help in recovering their sense of safety and stability. If the car accident resulted from someone else’s careless or reckless actions, then victims deserve to have that person pay for the help they need. In this blog post, we discuss the ins-and-outs of PTSD and car accidents, and how to hold wrongdoers legally and financially accountable for causing you to suffer the agony of PTSD.
Overview of PTSD
University of Florida Health (UFH) describes PTSD as an anxiety disorder that “can occur after you have gone through an extreme emotional trauma that involved the threat of injury or death,” such as a car accident or armed combat. PTSD does not necessarily arise in every person who lives through the same traumatic event. Doctors believe PTSD affects some people, but not others, due to a combination of factors, including a person’s genetics, emotional history, age, and family setting. PTSD also does not necessarily arise immediately after a trauma, but instead can appear weeks or months (or even years) after the initial traumatic event. People suffering from PTSD exhibit four broad categories of symptoms, according to UFH:
- Reliving the traumatic event, such as through vivid waking flashbacks, intrusive memories, nightmares, or intense reactions to events that remind the person of the initial trauma;
- Avoidance of emotions, people, places, or events that remind them of the trauma, and feeling emotionally numb, detached from, or hopeless about day-to-day life;
- Hyperarousal, exhibited through a constant state of watchfulness, inability to concentrate, being easily startled, insomnia, and bursts of anger; and
- Negative thoughts/moods/feelings, many of which focus on the event, such as feeling guilty about having survived it, blaming others for it, or being unable to recall it.
In addition to these specific symptoms, people suffering from PTSD may also struggle with physical ailments that typically accompany feelings of extreme stress, such as excitability and agitation, headaches, racing heart, and feeling faint or short of breath.
PTSD has also been known to lead to secondary physical and mental health problems. Many PTSD sufferers resort to “self-medication” through the use and abuse of drugs, often without having sought medical care, leading to substance use disorder (a.k.a. addiction) in many patients. PTSD may also lead some people to engage in harmful behaviors, including violence against others, risky or impulsive decision-making, and self-harm.
Doctors typically treat PTSD through a combination of talk therapy and medication. Some innovative approaches to treating PTSD also include the use of virtual reality technologies and “exposure therapy,” such as the techniques developed at the University of Central Florida’s RESTORE clinic.
What PTSD Looks Like for Car Accident Victims
The general public’s awareness of PTSD mostly stems from the condition’s prevalence among combat veterans. But the fact is, you do not have to have served in the military to experience PTSD. Any extremely traumatic event can trigger PTSD symptoms. Survivors of life-threatening car accidents frequently develop PTSD. In the weeks or months following a traumatic car accident, victims (even those who “walked away” with only minor physical injuries) may feel:
- Hounded by vivid memories of the moments surrounding the car crash accompanied by a “whole-body” feeling of living through the accident all over again;
- Fear of getting into a car, or driving the stretch of road where the accident occurred;
- Isolated and unable to connect with family and friends;
- Unable to empathize with others or numb to emotions, even during times that would normally evoke those emotions;
- Extreme tension or stress while riding in a car, or an irrational sense of danger in ordinary driving situations;
- Intense anger, rising to a level of road rage, in reaction to other drivers’ behaviors on the road; and
- Pervasive guilt about not having been able to prevent or avoid the accident, even if it happened because of something entirely out of the victim’s control.
As above, physical manifestations of extreme stress may accompany these symptoms. Also, these are just some of the symptoms PTSD can exhibit in a car accident victim. Anything that feels like (or looks to others like) a downward spiral in your life that you cannot control, particularly if it involves thoughts about or after-the-fact reactions to your car accident, could signal a struggle with PTSD.
How PTSD Interferes With Car Accident Victims’ Lives
Reading the symptoms above, it is not difficult to imagine the myriad ways PTSD can disrupt a car accident victim’s life. In our experience, some of the more common struggles post-car accident PTSD sufferers encounter include:
- Work/school difficulty. Accident victims with PTSD often experience a severe drop-off in productivity and performance at work and school. Intrusive thoughts about the accident make it difficult, if not impossible, to concentrate on tasks that used to feel second-nature. Anger wells up at inappropriate moments, interfering in relationships with co-workers and classmates. Scores on evaluations and exams drop. In the worst cases, victims lose their employment or fail out of school.
- Legal trouble. Withdrawing from life, struggling at work/school, and feeling uncontrollable anger, often leads to negative legal consequences. Car accident victims with PTSD frequently find themselves accused of offenses they never would have dreamed of committing, such as getting into fights or road-raging. It is also common for people to neglect basic obligations, such as filing taxes or keeping up with mortgage payments, leading to legal actions that cause even more difficulty.
- Strained family relationships. The negative outlook and emotional numbness that often accompanies PTSD puts extreme strain on a person’s closest relationships. PTSD has been known to break up marriages and estrange best friends from one another. This only aggravates the symptoms of PTSD, and causes the victim further stress, anxiety, and depression.
- Self-harming behaviors. PTSD suffers have a higher-than-average risk of addiction and suicide. They often reject those closest to them and isolate themselves, which only fuels deeply negative and dangerous emotions.
When we refer to a “downward spiral” above, these are the types of negative life changes we are referring to. Sometimes, car accident victims or their loved ones have a hard time putting their finger on specific PTSD symptoms, but can see that things have gone downhill in their lives without obvious explanation. If your life has turned completely upside down in ways you never would have expected, and it all started with a car accident (even one you walked away from), then you may be struggling with PTSD.
What To Do About PTSD After a Car Accident
Seek Medical Help
If you were in a car accident and, weeks or months later, find yourself experiencing any of the symptoms or negative life consequences above, SEEK MEDICAL HELP. As a home to numerous military installations, Florida is blessed with extensive resources for people suffering from PTSD. Unsure of where to turn for help? Then call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration’s National Helpline at 1-800-622-HELP (4357), or theNational Alliance on Mental Illness’s HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264). These helplines are staffed 24/7/365 by operators who can assist you in connecting with local PTSD treatment resources.
Remember, PTSD is not just a condition that affects veterans. Anyone who has experienced an extremely traumatic, life-threatening event—including a car accident—can suffer from PTSD, and will be received and treated at any of the health centers across the state that treat the condition.
It is also important to realize that having PTSD does not mean there is something “wrong” with you. Having lived through an abnormal trauma, your body is now having a perfectly normal (albeit upsetting) response. You are not broken or flawed. Having PTSD is not a judgment about how tough you are. Just because other people who were involved in your accident seem “ok” does not mean you should feel that way, too. PTSD is a medical condition that affects a person’s mental and physical health for a wide variety of reasons.
Get help soon. The longer you wait to seek help, the more negative consequences PTSD may have on your life. Conversely, the sooner you seek help, the sooner health care providers can get started putting you on the path to recovery.
Let Others Know What Is Going On
The people in your life most affected by your struggle with PTSD—your loved ones, colleagues, and friends—may not understand what has happened to you. From the outside, it may seem like you have taken a nosedive without any obvious cause, particularly if it has been months since your car accident. Difficult as it may seem, it is important to let these people know how you feel and what you are doing about it. Not only will they understand and want to help, but telling them about your struggles may also help heal relationships that PTSD has put under severe strain.
Telling others also helps to protect your legal rights. PTSD is a diagnosable medical condition. Having a PTSD diagnosis entitles you to certain protections under state and federal laws that protect people from discrimination, and potentially also to disability benefits. Consulting with a lawyer is the best way to learn about these legal rights, but in the meantime, it is important to make sure others who count on you are aware of what you are going through.
Speak With an Experienced Car Accident Attorney
Most people know that if they sustain physical injuries in a car accident that wasn’t their fault, then they should check in with a car accident lawyer to find out if they have rights to compensation. Fewer people realize the importance of speaking with an attorney if they walked away or heard from an accident, only to see their lives upended by PTSD later.
The fact is, as a diagnosable medical condition, PTSD is just as much of an “injury” as a shattered pelvis or a third-degree burn. Victims of car accidents that were not their fault should not have to “go it alone” recovering from PTSD any more than they should if their injuries included physical trauma. Just like car accident victims who end up hospitalized for months healing from damage to their bodies, victims who suffer from PTSD deserve compensation to help them recover and put their lives back on track.
What sort of compensation? For starters, PTSD treatment costs money, and car accident victims should not have to pay any of that out-of-pocket. PTSD keeps victims out of work, and they should not have to absorb the loss of that income. PTSD strains, and sometimes ruptures, intimate relationships, and victims should not have to endure that pain and life-difficulty. Simply put, car accident victims who suffer from PTSD deserve to be paid the same kinds of damages that any other car accident victim receives.
Too many car accident victims struggle with PTSD in silence. Do not be one of them. Seek the help you need and take a step toward putting your life back on track. If you suffer from PTSD after a car accident, a skilled Florida car accident attorney can help you recover the compensation you deserve from the parties who caused the accident and upended your life.