- What is post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD?
- Who gets PTSD?
- What are the symptoms of PTSD?
- Do children react differently than adults?
- How is PTSD detected?
- Why do some people get PTSD and other people do not?
- How is PTSD treated?
- Other medications
- Treatment after mass trauma
- What efforts are under way to improve the detection and treatment of PTSD?
- How can I help a friend or relative who has PTSD?
- How can I help myself?
- Where can I go for help?
- What if I or someone I know is in crisis?
- For more information on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Treatment after mass trauma
Sometimes large numbers of people are affected by the same event. For example, a lot of people needed help after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Most people will have some PTSD symptoms in the first few weeks after events like these. This is a normal and expected response to serious trauma, and for most people, symptoms generally lessen with time. Most people can be helped with basic support, such as:
- Getting to a safe place
- Seeing a doctor if injured
- Getting food and water
- Contacting loved ones or friends
- Learning what is being done to help.
But some people do not get better on their own. A study of Hurricane Katrina survivors found that, over time, more people were having problems with PTSD, depression, and related mental disorders.6 This pattern is unlike the recovery from other natural disasters, where the number of people who have mental health problems gradually lessens. As communities try to rebuild after a mass trauma, people may experience ongoing stress from loss of jobs and schools, and trouble paying bills, finding housing, and getting health care. This delay in community recovery may in turn delay recovery from PTSD.
In the first couple weeks after a mass trauma, brief versions of CBT may be helpful to some people who are having severe distress.7 Sometimes other treatments are used, but their effectiveness is not known. For example, there is growing interest in an approach called psychological first aid. The goal of this approach is to make people feel safe and secure, connect people to health care and other resources, and reduce stress reactions.8 There are guides for carrying out the treatment, but experts do not know yet if it helps prevent or treat PTSD.
In single-session psychological debriefing, another type of mass trauma treatment, survivors talk about the event and express their feelings one-on-one or in a group. Studies show that it is not likely to reduce distress or the risk for PTSD, and may actually increase distress and risk.9
Hospitals, health care systems, and health care providers are also affected by a mass trauma. The number of people who need immediate physical and psychological help may be too much for health systems to handle. Some patients may not find help when they need it because hospitals do not have enough staff or supplies. In some cases, health care providers themselves may be struggling to recover as well.
NIMH scientists are working on this problem. For example, researchers are testing how to give CBT and other treatments using the phone and the Internet. In one study, people with PTSD met with a therapist to learn about the disorder, made a list of things that trigger their symptoms, and learned basic ways to reduce stress. After this meeting, the participants could visit a Web site with more information about PTSD. Participants could keep a log of their symptoms and practice coping skills. Overall, the researchers found the Internet-based treatment helped reduce symptoms of PTSD and depression.10 These effects lasted after treatment ended.
Researchers will carry out more studies to find out if other such approaches to therapy can be helpful after mass trauma.