I think sometimes we hear so much about PTSD and traumatic situations that we become immune to the true potency of them. Or we think that someone who has gone through trauma is just looking for attention or being weak.
In truth, traumatic events happen every day. Some people come out of them seemingly unscathed while others are obviously deeply wounded and marked by them. Just because someone looks like they’re okay, though, doesn’t mean they are. And just because someone has a strong reaction initially does not mean that they will suffer permanently because of it.
No one knows for sure why some people develop an actual diagnosable disorder (PTSD) as a result of trauma and other people don’t. It seems that life threatening trauma is more likely to cause longer term mental health effects, but that’s not a universal factor.
Often, the people quietly plagued behind the scenes are the ones suffering the most. That’s not true across the board, but you probably don’t know all the people around you who are struggling with some sort of mental health related concern. They don’t want to talk about it for fear of exactly what I described above: being told they are just looking for attention or that they are weak. They aren’t weak. Most of them are still going about daily life, pushing through the anxiety, flashbacks, and pain without asking for anyone to notice them. In fact, they’d probably rather you didn’t notice them. They pray, hope, wish, for relief without having to let anyone know what’s going on.
And yes, there are those who will use their struggles to manipulate others into feeling sorry for them and for feeling guilty for some aspect of what is going on. For those who are suffering in silence, the awareness of these people is another reason they don’t want to say anything. They don’t want a label at all but they especially don’t want a label that associates them with someone who uses their label for attention.
You probably won’t ever know everyone around you who has faced a traumatic experience, and you further won’t know how it impacted them. That doesn’t mean you can’t do anything to help them. What can you do?
You can acknowledge traumatic events when you see them. A friend loses someone close to them; loss may be part of life but it is often a traumatic part of life. A coworker gets mugged on the way home from work. A family member gets a difficult diagnosis. A group from your church encounters violence while on a short term mission trip. The list could go on. Natural disasters. Illness. Death. Injury. Loss of job. Being the victim of a crime. Etc. When you know something has happened, in some way let the person know you know about it and that you can’t understand but you know it must be hard. You don’t have to offer words of advice or comfort; you don’t have to know exactly what to do to help them. Just letting them know you know makes them feel slightly less alone.
You can watch for signs of lingering struggle. As you ask, genuinely, how they are doing, keep an eye out for any feelings of helplessness or lasting distress. This may not be a sign that they aren’t coping well. Everyone processes at a different pace, however, if they do show signs of recurring nightmares, edginess, hopelessness, being available to them to talk is a great way to help them feel like they matter and their pain is important to someone other than just them.
Pray. In importance, this is the first thing. When you know someone has gone through something hard, whether they end up with long term effects or not, there isn’t a single thing you can effectively do for them apart from God’s grace, mercy, strength, and love. He is the only answer. We have to be careful to first get a sense of how the person is doing. If there is a physical or emotional need that must be met, sometimes we need to meet that first. In the midst of a crisis, the person may need you to run and get them food or water or a plane ticket before they can handle you praying with them or quote a Bible verse to them. We also need to understand that putting our faith in God does not necessarily mean we will automatically be free of all trauma, addiction, etc. There are those who as soon as they put their faith in Christ experience freedom; there are also those who will continue to struggle for the rest of their lives. It is easy for them to then question their salvation; we must encourage them that God is glorified in their battle as much as He is in another’s victory. The question isn’t, “Did I have enough faith?” It is, “Is Christ’s finished work sufficient to hold me in spite of me?” All of Scripture, but Hebrews and Romans in particular, would resound with an emphatic: “YES!”
There’s a lot you can do; more than I listed here. The first thing, though, is to open your eyes. Realize that people are going through hard times; offer them support. They need to know they aren’t alone and they aren’t being judged for having a hard time. When they are safe to be real, they are less likely to having long term effects and are more likely to be able to endure the short term effects. This isn’t a guarantee; again, it depends on the individual. But it is a positive factor which may help them move into a good space.