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Exploring the impact of personal injury on mental health - Tom Fitzgerald, Managing Director of National Accident Helpline

24/06/19. For years, we have known that the effect of a personal injury extends beyond the physical hurt, but naturally, the focus remains on the physical injury itself.

But as attitudes continue to change, there is an increasing recognition of the importance of protecting our mental health, and this is something which is hugely important at a time of trauma like an accidental injury.

The team in our busy Legal Support Centre speak to people every single day who are struggling after an accident – often not just physically, but mentally too. They might be struggling with the fact that they are suddenly unable to run around after their children, take them on the school run or care for them as they usually can. Or they might be stressed and worried when they find they are suddenly unable to go to work and earn a living for weeks or months on end.

Having heard so much anecdotal evidence from our customer calls, we decided to commission some thorough research into exactly how people felt, mentally and physically, following an accident.

We were shocked, but not entirely surprised, by the findings – particularly when it came to investigating the true mental strain of the experience.

Naturally, a lot of the focus of an accident falls upon the physical injuries suffered, and the process to recover from them. But less is known and documented about the mental struggles which people go through – from not being able to look after their children to the struggles with anxiety and depression which some experience.

More than 1,000 people who had been injured in accidents which weren’t their fault – including road accidents and accidents in the workplace – were questioned for our research.

We found that almost three quarters – 72% - had struggled with mental health issues following their accident. People said they had experienced anxiety (34%), stress (35%) and depression (18%), while one in five had struggled to sleep. Others were troubled by panic attacks (13%), nightmares (13%), paranoia (8%) and PTSD (7%).

And the mental strain of a personal injury isn’t just felt by the person who is injured – it’s also felt by their spouses, partners, children, family and friends. Of the 1,000 injured people in our study, more than a third told us that their accident had had a negative effect on their relationships.

Financial pressure also plays a part: over half of those surveyed had lost income (55%) or worried about losing their job altogether (57%) and nearly two thirds worried about their work performance (63%).

People also told us in their own words about how their accident had changed their life – feelings of frustration and inadequacy were clear, with one injured person telling us: “All I needed was a magic button to take the stress away”.

Taking the insight we had gained, we sought the advice of experienced healthcare professionals to ask about their experience of helping people following an accidental injury. How did people cope and what was the process for these professionals to help them?

We spoke at length to five key healthcare professionals – a mental health nurse, clinical psychologist, physiotherapist, carer and occupational therapist – about their experiences of working with people after an accident.

Clinical Psychologist Dr Claire Freeman explained the extent of the mental impact which an accidental injury can have.

She said: “One in three people experience PTSD after a stressful or traumatic event and they might come with a number of different symptoms – they might be feeling quite anxious, they might be experiencing sleep difficulties which can be as severe as insomnia.

“Some people might be struggling to even leave their home, they might be struggling to go to work.”

Dr Freeman’s advice was that being able to simply talk through what had happened without being asked a lot of questions was often a validating experience for injured people.

Physiotherapist Sarah Clifford said the injured people she worked with often felt vulnerable after the shock of their accident. She said: “I think there’s a vulnerable feeling at the beginning. Because you’ve had a big accident, it hasn’t been your fault, and you feel like the world’s against you, don’t you? You’re in pain and you shouldn’t be, because you were just on your way somewhere.”

GP Dr Hilary Jones has been advising the nation on health matters on television over the past 30 years and is working with us to share our findings. He agreed that now was the time to keep the conversation flowing and open when it comes to mental health matters.

Dr Hilary said: “Most people will be touched by stress, anxiety or depression at some point in their lives, so of course we should talk about it.

“This old-fashioned idea that unless you can see an injury like a broken bone and get sympathy from that, it’s not worth talking about, is completely old hat. It’s very difficult to forget those negative thoughts, but they’re there and unless they’re addressed, they will linger.

“So the physical injury and the mental health issues that come with it are somehow inextricably bound together.”

With 25 years’ experience in personal injury claims, we are well aware of the stigma around the industry and the idea of making a claim. With this research, we want to show that the impact of an accidental injury can be significant and that it’s ok for a person who has been injured to want to get back to the position they should have been in.

If our research helps even just one person to understand how important it is to seek help for their recovery, then we will have done our job.

Tom Fitzgerald is managing director of National Accident Helpline

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