AWARDS 2011: Is PTSD An 'Identity Cancer'?

Kedleston Road campus 504x257 AWARDS 2011: Is PTSD An 'Identity Cancer'?

Date posted: 17 January 2011

Psychology student Sarah Vine has travelled 10,000 miles as she prepares to collect her degree certificate from the University of Derby later this week.

Sarah studied for her BA (Hons) Psychology degree online from her home in Sydney, Australia, and travelled to the UK to spend Christmas and New Year with her family in Fife and introduce them to her recent new arrival - her second baby, Archer.

Sarah has decided to extend her stay in the UK on an extended break so she and her family, including husband Matthew and their other child Wilbur can attend the University's Awards Ceremonies on January 22.

As part of her course, Sarah lifted the lid on the effects of the devastating anxiety condition Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after gaining consent to interview four men and three women who accessed an online support group.

Some disturbing quotes expressing sufferers' internal conflict were captured as part of her research:

  • "I feel very unhappy about myself now, because I want to be who I was before my world exploded'.
  • "This person that I have become, I despise. I just have self-loathing and despise who I am now, I just can't accept that I have had a personality transplant."

Sarah asks if PTSD could be likened to an 'identity cancer' with sufferers talking about how their current selves are at war with their former identities as they battle to overcome the trauma.

One study estimates 61% of men and 51% of women will experience at least one traumatic incident in their lives such as abuse, assault, a disaster, rape or severe accident - and while many will initially exhibit some symptoms, very few will go on to develop PTSD.

Sarah wrote: "A PTSD sufferer's struggle to retain their old self is conceptualised by the majority of participants as engaging in a conflict with their disorder, which they attributed as the cause of their altered self concept.

"This sense of conflict reveals the fundamental theme of this academic paper - that PTSD has a dramatic effect on the sufferer's sense of self and identity.

"All of the participants described PTSD using war metaphors and winning their battle with PTSD was a symbol for regaining their former preferred selves. The loathing and contempt that all the participants expressed towards PTSD would seem to be the spark.

"However... there is a flame of hope that they can recover from PTSD and this is perhaps the motivating force which keeps them going."

Participants felt there was a stigma or lack of understanding about PTSD which had caused the people in their lives to withdraw from them or to alter how they interact with them, and feel that the disorder is a social, as well as a mental, disorder.

Her work was encapsulated by the following comment from a study participant:

  • "We all want to believe our brains (and therefore we) are unbreakable. Unfortunately, when our brains break, people cannot see the damage and they expect us to 'just get over it'. Unlike bones we cannot put a plaster on our brain and we cannot stop using it whilst it heals. Instead we have to use it while it is still damaged and just do the best we can."

Michele Rosenthal, a PTSD survivor who founded the online support group which Sarah accessed for her studies, said: "I believe the element of self-perception and identity is critically important in the healing process. The crux of this idea is that trauma survivors rendered powerless during trauma often develop PTSD. In this chronic state, it is difficult to heal. However, when that perspective or state is shifted and survivors begin to feel powerful there's an enormous change in progress."

Sarah was attracted to study the degree course as it is BPS-accredited, and praised the IPA Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis approach she used to help identify and glean information from sufferers.

She graduates with a 2:1 degree, and collects the University's McGraw-Hill Prize for Outstanding Independent Study for her dissertation entitled: 'Unbreak my brain: the meaning and experience of living with post-traumatic stress disorder: an interpretative phenomenological analysis'.

One of her University tutors Professor James Elander, said: "Sarah's study is a good example of how small scale research can provide important psychological insights, if the study addresses an important issue, and is well designed and carried out.

"It also illustrates the growing role of the internet in mental health and psychological research. Sarah is an online student who studied members of an online support group, and used the internet to collect her data."

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