Health & Fitness

After Fort Lauderdale airport shooting, here’s how to find help for PTSD

Scene at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport where a gunman, Esteban Santiago, shot and killed five people and wounded six on Friday, Jan. 6, 2017.
Scene at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport where a gunman, Esteban Santiago, shot and killed five people and wounded six on Friday, Jan. 6, 2017. dsantiago@elnuevoherald.com

We were all horrified by the senseless shooting at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport that resulted in death and injury to innocent citizens. For those of us who witnessed this on television and online, our reactions ranged from “not again” to “it could have been one of us or members of our family.”

For the majority of South Floridians, the horror of this day will fade and we will go back to our normal routines. But for others, the trauma will last.

Whether you were at the airport or watching it unfold on television or the internet, the images of violence may leave you feeling vulnerable. It is important to understand that there is no shame in admitting these fears. It’s actually courageous and noble to seek professional help to overcome them.

Based on other such tragedies, we know that some of those exposed to the Jan. 6 trauma, particularly individuals who were at the airport, will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A psychiatric syndrome commonly associated with veterans, PTSD is characterized by intrusive thoughts about the traumatic event (flashbacks and/or nightmares), avoidance (no longer being able to go to or near the airport), changes in mood and cognition and hypervigilance.

At the University of Miami Health System, our current research, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, is attempting to determine risk factors for the development of PTSD after trauma exposure. So far we know that these include a history of early life trauma, such as child abuse or neglect, and more recent life stressors, such as the loss of a job, separation or divorce. Also, women are twice as vulnerable to PTSD. There are, undoubtedly, genetic risk factors as well.

Because PTSD can become chronic and is associated with increased risk for other psychiatric and medical disorders, including depression, substance and alcohol abuse, heart disease and suicide, it is important to identify those who will develop PTSD after trauma to provide scientifically based treatments. Recognizing someone suffering from PTSD can’t just be the role of medical providers. The entire South Florida community will need to step up and monitor the behaviors of family and friends who were impacted by the shooting.

If you or a loved one are experiencing PTSD symptoms, as a result of the recent shooting or other events, you should seek treatment from a mental health professional. If you feel it is a medical emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. To speak with a counselor on the phone, call the Switchboard of Miami at 305-358-HELP.

When help is sought, patients with PTSD can be successfully treated with cognitive behavior therapy, cognitive processing therapy, prolonged exposure therapy and other treatments. Two antidepressants, sertraline and paroxetine, are also effective. In addition, patients who do not respond to the combination of one of these medications and psychotherapy may find relief from newer treatments that are now available.

Charles Nemeroff, M.D., is a psychiatrist and chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Miami Health System. To learn more, visit umiamihospital.com/specialties/psychiatry.

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