by Elizabeth Payne-Maddalena
Broken bones. Whiplash. Concussions and TBIs. Slipped discs. Busted knees. Juries expect these kinds of injuries from a car crash or a slip and fall. These injuries are easy to diagnose: there are diagnostic tests for them, like x-rays and MRIs. Doctors can press on a muscle and feel it spasm, look at a person and see them limp.
But a person isn’t just a collection of body parts. That’s not what makes you you. When I ask people what drives them in life, they tell me about their families, friends, faith, work, passions, hobbies and dreams. Those are the important little pieces of a person that makes up a soul.
To pursue these things, these passions that make up a person, people have to be physically able to do them. When someone gets hurt in a car crash, it’s like throwing a stone into a calm pond – the ripples spread out and touch each part of their life. The outgoing PTA mom who’s always willing to help out suddenly withdraws, in too much pain to paste a smile on her face. The young accomplished athlete feels like a failure, struggling with frustration, anger at the recovery process. The office rockstar misses work, meetings, falls behind.
Juries aren’t surprised to hear about these kinds of damages from car crash or fall victims. After all, jurors are people too, and this makes sense to them that injuries do more than just hurt. But sadly, some attorneys choose to ignore these impacts on their clients’ lives, even when the emotions become so great that their client needs professional help to recover. These injuries, some say, are too “hard” to prove. After all, there’s no MRI to show depression. X-rays don’t show driving anxiety.
However, these are crucial losses that you’ve suffered because of someone else’s negligent choices, and you deserve to be compensated for them. So today, I’d like to talk to you about how to make sure all of you gets the healing you need after you’ve been injured. This is an important topic, and I know there are lots of stigmas around “mental health issues” that we’ll get into. Most importantly, remember that there’s nothing wrong with asking for help when you need it.
What kind of emotional or psychological injuries do you normally see in your cases?
First of all, I try not to call them “psychological injuries” because there’s a lot of baggage with that term, and I don’t want clients to feel judged or uncomfortable.
The situation I described above is very common with my clients. Injuries suck. I’ve had my fair share of them, and the healing process can be a long and arduous road. The pain alone can cause someone to want to isolate themselves or feel weak, humiliated. Clients may lash out unintentionally when they’re hurting, affecting their relationships with others. But some feel robbed when they miss out on important life events, or even everyday life events. When the injuries are life-changing, its a higher chance that they will never truly, fully recover. This makes some people very depressed. Some people get angry, as they did nothing wrong – after all, it was the defendant who made the choice that caused them to get hurt. Sometimes, these feelings of depression, anger, or anxiety become a festering wound that drags a person down.
Other times, the event itself may trigger anxiety or post-traumatic stress for a client. For example, imagine you’re sitting at a red traffic light, minding your own business when BAM! A drunk driver rear-ends you at full speed. You have to be taken to the ER from the scene by an ambulance. It’s out of nowhere. Next time you’re sitting at a red light, how do you think you’re feeling? Nervous? Anxious? You bet. Your sense of safety’s been completely shattered, and now, you trust no one. Many people confess to feeling like they’re just waiting for the next negligent driver to hit them – and they’re scared that the next one will be a lot worse. For a majority of people, this driving anxiety goes away after a few weeks. But for some, it clutches into their brain and refuses to let go. When those people get behind the wheel, they may start to feel their heart racing or have flashbacks. Nightmares might plague them. They avoid driving. When it starts to interfere with all the things you have to get done, that’s when you need to ask for help.
For assault and abuse survivors, the trauma surrounding the event itself leaves long lasting scars that require counseling to help them overcome their fears. Getting a client into immediate supportive treatment is necessary in these kinds of cases in order to help give the client the support they need to fully recover from their abusers.
What should I be doing to protect myself?
Again, each client is different – no two people are alike. Some people may recover without needing any professional help, but others will. It’s important that you’re talking to your medical doctors, physical therapists, and your attorney about your frustrations, anger and anxiety, so that way, if you do need help it is well documented. This means you’ll have an easier time getting treatment if you need it. This also helps build your case by having a third party that can back up your testimony if the case goes into litigation.
What are some of the major roadblocks that keep clients from getting treatment?
Let’s face it: the US has a major problem when it comes to our views on mental health issues. The Association for Psychological Science cites this stigma as one of the main reasons why people don’t get or complete mental health treatment. Getting counseling or therapy is seen as something “crazy” or for people with serious psychological disorders. Some see it as an admission of weakness.
The simple truth is that the people I know who are willing to seek professional help when they need it are the strongest people I know. They’re anything but crazy. In fact, they’re some of the sanest people I’ve met. Think of it this way: you have a brain injury, you see a neurologist. But if your psyche is injured, you’re not gonna go see a doctor to heal that?
Insurance and money
The next big hurdle is finding a way to pay for treatment. Under the ACA, insurance companies must cover mental health treatments. This is great news, and something that hopefully Congress sees and keeps this requirement.
But many providers are out of network, meaning there are high copays or deductibles. Finding in-network providers can be time consuming, or worse, involve long waitlists. But there may be solutions you and your attorney can come up with if you ask and explain the issue with them. Let them be your ally! After all, we can’t help you if you don’t tell us what roadblocks you’re encountering.
Jagged little pill
With apologies to Alanis, medication is another big issue that makes many people shirk away from seeking help when they need it. There’s an additional stigma around taking psychiatric medications that’s pervasive. Some people fear they’ll become zombies or someone different on medication. Others worry that they’ll experience significant side effects. Still others fear addiction or dependency. But these feelings, while valid, shouldn’t stop you from getting the treatment you need.
First of all, medication is not always a requirement for treatment. It’s a tool that can be used as part of your treatment, yes, but it’s not a required one. Your mental health professional should be willing to work with you if you’re uncomfortable taking medication, and you should talk to them about your fears and concerns. You may also want to focus on treating with Licensed Professional Counselors (LPCs), Psychologists, and/or Licensed Social Workers (LSWs). These providers typically focus more on non-medication therapies versus psychiatrists. However, psychiatrists also offer therapies and methods that couple well with medication, or fall outside of it, and can be just as beneficial. They can be especially helpful if you do end up needing prescriptions to help manage your symptoms while you’re in treatment.
Additionally, your treating provider should work with you to find a medication that doesn’t result in significant or massive side effects or turn you into a zombie. While it may take a couple of adjustments or trying different drugs, your provider will work with you to find something that manages your symptoms while allowing you to still be you.
Finally, even if your provider recommends prescription medications as one of the tools to help you recover from your emotional injury, that doesn’t mean you’ll have to take that medication forever. It’s just like taking a course of antibiotics for a sinus infection: after you’re cured and you’ve completed your dose, you don’t keep taking them forever. Many people end up tapering off their medications completely once their treatment has resolved. Keep in mind that you should not just quit taking your medications, and stopping any psychiatric medications should be done at the recommendation and under the supervision of your treating provider.
Finding the right provider
The last big struggle I hear about when it comes to getting treatment for emotional injuries is finding the right provider. This boils down to two categories: experience/specialty and fit.
With experience and/or specialty, I mean finding a provider who’s treated people with the same trauma as you, and/or offers the kind of treatment you want. You don’t want to go to a counselor or therapist for driving anxiety whose never treated someone with post-crash driving fears before! When you’re calling around, ask your potential doctors, counselors or therapists if they’ve ever treated someone in your situation before. You should also ask what therapies they offer and prefer (including any concerns over medication, as I discussed above). If you’re not familiar with the therapies they offer, Google them! Google can be very helpful with explaining what therapies benefit what symptoms the best. For example:
- EMDR is especially helpful for people suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) can be helpful for people suffering panic attacks or anxiety disorders
By fit, I’m talking about finding a provider that you’re comfortable with. This is incredibly important when it comes to any medical provider that you’re seeing, case-related or not, but even more so for mental health treatment. You’re trusting and talking to someone about the thing that most people struggle opening up about: your feelings, your thoughts, your emotions, your fears. If you don’t feel comfortable (or like you can get comfortable) with a potential provider, your treatment won’t be as successful as it’ll be hard to open up. It’s not a bad thing, and a provider won’t take it personally. (As a lawyer, I tell potential clients all the time that they should feel comfortable talking to me, and if not, they shouldn’t choose me to be their attorney for the same reason).
No matter what, people deserve to be compensated for the emotional damages they’ve incurred as a result of someone else’s negligent choices. Even if they don’t end up needing psychological treatment, as those damages still matter. Make sure you’re talking to your treating providers in order to build a record of these damages and ensure you get the treatment you need. Find an attorney who cares about all of you, not just your bones, muscles or organs. And don’t let the stigmas keep you from being compensated for all of your injuries. After all, it’s what you’re entitled to and what you deserve.