Much has been written about returning military personnel and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) because it’s important to raise awareness of this issue as so many of our men and women who have served overseas live with the lingering effects of serious head injuries. And depending on what part of the brain is injured, TBI is often correlated with mental health problems. In fact, studies show that when people without any prior mental health issues or history of mental illness suffer a TBI, their risk for depression and other mental health issues increases significantly – up to two to five times higher than the general population. In this post, we review the link between TBI and mental health, how to look out for symptoms, and treat them if they develop.
What Is Traumatic Brain Injury & Why Do So Many Military Personnel Get Them?
The TBI Centers of Excellence (part of the Office of the Secretary of Defense) reports nearly 450,000 TBIs among U.S. service members from all branches between 2000 and 2020 - that’s a significant number of our service men and women living with the repercussions of a serious head injury. The CDC defines a TBI as a disruption in the normal function of the brain that is caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head, or a penetrating object. Military service members are especially at risk from explosions experienced during combat or training exercises, and in fact, currently, approximately 80% of new military TBI cases occur in non-deployed settings, most often sustained during training activities.
TBIs have persistent, and sometimes progressive, long-term debilitating physical and emotional effects. Typical physical symptoms include headaches, seizures, weakness, numbness and loss of coordination, to name just a few. A TBI may also trigger cognitive symptoms including confusion, frequent mood changes, memory loss, executive dysfunction, behavioral changes and difficulty reasoning or learning.
The Link Between TBI & Mental Health Disorders
Scientists have found that living with a TBI may also lead to mental health disorders, including Major Depressive Disorder (most common), PTSD (second most common), Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, and to a lesser extent, Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia – all most likely caused by damage to brain tissue during the original head injury.
Following Is More Detail About The Two Most Common Mental Health Disorders Associated With TBI
Major Depressive Disorder — The prevalence of depression within the first year after brain injury is 33%–42%, and within the first 7 years is 61%. Depression may slow the pace of cognitive recovery, impact social functioning, and lower overall health-related quality of life. In addition, people recovering from TBI who also have depression are 3 times less likely to stay on their prescribed medication. They also report more severe physical symptoms (like headache, blurred vision, and dizziness) compared to non-depressed TBI patients. Depression after TBI may result in part from direct or secondary injury to brain tissue, and it also may result in part from the TBI patient’s frustration with the pace of recovery and loss of “normal” routine and ability to participate in activities of daily life.
PTSD — Studies show that military personnel who suffer a TBI are almost twice as likely to have developed PTSD one year later than those with no TBI. One of the problems in diagnosing PTSD in these situations though, is that post-acute symptoms following TBI overlap somewhat with those associated with PTSD itself. Fortunately, clinicians with solid experience treating PTSD are more apt to be able to tell the difference. Scientists believe that PTSD may develop following TBI due to several factors: unconscious or conscious “encoding” in the brain of sensory factors (the sights and smells) associated with the event that caused the TBI, reconstruction of the trauma memory from secondary sources (for example, other people who were there), and memory of circumstances surrounding the event that also may be emotionally traumatic (like seeing others hurt).
Looking at this issue from another perspective, researchers have also found that veterans seeking help from the VA for mental health issues, were found to have undiagnosed TBI in 45% of the cases studied. In other words, symptoms of depression and other mental health disorders were the tip-off that something was significantly wrong medically; in this case, the patients had suffered a TBI at some point in their military service that had not been diagnosed or treated.
Watch For Symptoms Of Mental Health Disorders If You Have Been Diagnosed With A TBI
Making progress in rehabilitation from a TBI can be especially challenging when it’s complicated by an undiagnosed mental health disorder. That’s why it’s so important for people with TBI to be screened for mental health disorders too, and for loved ones and clinicians to watch for signs of mental health problems after TBI. If you see general symptoms such as the following, consult with a qualified mental health provider (and when in doubt, go ahead and get checked out):
Feeling especially sad or down
Excessive fears or worries, or extreme feelings of guilt
Extreme mood changes
Withdrawal from friends and activities
Detachment from reality, paranoia, or hallucinations
Inability to cope with daily problems
Problems with alcohol or drug use
Excessive anger, hostility, or violence
Mental Health Disorders Associated With TBI Are Treatable
For people with a TBI who are also diagnosed with a mental health disorder, it’s important that treatment for that disorder be integrated into the overall TBI rehabilitation treatment plan as prescribed by a qualified mental health provider. Treatment may include a combination of medications and therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy (EMDR) — treatment options similar to those recommended for people who are not dealing with a TBI. So, the good news is that mental health disorders associated with TBI are treatable, but it’s critical to be on the lookout for symptoms so they’re not missed.