This PTSD Awareness Day, Remember the Caregivers

June 27, 2019

About 7 million adults in the United States will experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) some time during their life. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that every year, about 5% of women in the U.S. and 2% of men experience PTSD. And children and teens are not immune. They, too, can develop the condition.

What Is PTSD?

Most people understand that PTSD is a mental health condition triggered by exposure to a traumatic event, such as being a victim of a crime or a serious illness, like septic shock. Symptoms of PTSD can include, among others, flashbacks and reliving the traumatic event, nightmares, avoiding anything that could trigger a flashback or memory, feeling detached from life, startling easily, even self-destructive behavior.

But PTSD can also affect people who aren’t directly a victim, or in the case of illness like sepsis, the patient. PTSD can affect the loved ones and the caregivers of anyone who is seriously ill. And while not everyone who experiences trauma develops PTSD, for those who do, PTSD can have a serious impact on their quality of life. This June 27, PTSD Awareness Day, Sepsis Alliance recognizes the issues that can face the caregivers of people who were or are seriously ill.

The Stress on Loved Ones, Caregivers

 The drastic change from being perfectly healthy to being on life support can happen in a matter of hours when it comes to sepsis, and while a patient is fighting for their life, family members and friends can only wait to see what happens, perhaps watching their loved one undergo invasive tests and treatments. They may see their loved one placed in an induced coma and put on a ventilator to help them breathe and their hands tied down to keep them from pulling out various tubes. They may hear their loved one crying out in pain or hallucinating. They may have to make difficult decisions, like approving an amputation.

Family members may have been told, more than once, that their loved one may die. Doctors might have suggested that other family members be called in to say their good-byes. They may have heard a code over the intercom for a cardiac arrest in their loved one’s room, and they might, eventually, be asked to remove life support.

According to one study, published in 2016, almost 70% of family and friends of people with critical illnesses experienced higher levels of depression than the general population. And another study, published in 2018, found that there were higher rates of PTSD, as well as physical symptoms (headaches and fatigue) among parents of children who were critically ill. These problems can occur even if their loved one fully recovers and has no signs of post-sepsis syndrome (PSS), including PTSD, themselves.

There are other factors that could contribute to depression, anxiety, or PTSD among family and friends, such blaming themselves because they believe:

  • They didn’t notice their loved one was so ill
  • They weren’t around or available when their loved one first became ill
  • They weren’t able to convince their loved one to seek medical help sooner
  • They didn’t know what sepsis was

Supporting the Family and Caregivers

It’s important for family and caregivers of people who had sepsis get the support they need in order to recognize that they, too, have gone through a traumatic experience. They must be able to seek help as they need it. Counselors and therapists who specialize in PTSD can help provide a treatment plan and coping techniques to lessen the effects of PTSD.

If you are experiencing PTSD because a loved one was seriously ill, ask at the hospital or a local health facility if there are support groups for family members. If not, they may be able to direct you to an organization how may be able to help you.

If someone you care for is currently in the hospital being treated for sepsis or septic shock, the Sepsis Alliance booklet, When a Loved One Has Sepsis: A Caregiver’s Guide, can provide you with important information about what you can expect to see and hear in an intensive care unit (ICU). Being able to understand the surroundings and procedures in an ICU can help relieve some of the stress and anxiety surrounding the situation. It’s a free download, available here: http://www.sepsis.org/resources/caregivers/ .

PTSD can be frightening, especially when you didn’t expect it. Self-care and actively seeking counseling could help prevent PTSD symptoms, or if symptoms do appear, help you recognize them in the early stages. PTSD is real and it is treatable.