Two Months After Bombings, PTSD Is A Concern

Though life has returned to normal, police and civilians alike likely have lingering emotional trauma.


For police, the effects of the bombings aren’t over. Photo by Regina Mogilevskaya

In many ways, it’s hard to believe that the bombing at the Boston Marathon finish line was two months ago. Sometimes it feels like they were just yesterday, and sometimes it feels like years have passed. And though most of us have been able to return, slowly, to normal life, an event as traumatic as the bombings and the ensuing city-wide lockdown could easily contribute to lingering conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

And those conditions affect no one more than the police and first responders who experienced the trauma first-hand. “There is kind of an acute phase and then a more prolonged and delayed phase,” explains David Gitlin, chief of medical psychiatry at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “The acute phase sometimes is best described by acute stress disorder, and it’s kind of like shock.” During the acute phase, he says, police (or anyone close to the tragedy) can experience symptoms like anxiety, sleep problems, flashbacks, and emotional numbing.

But, Gitlin says, those symptoms don’t always go away—that’s when PTSD comes into the picture. “What we see there is a chronicity of some of the symptoms [like anxiety, flashbacks, isolation, and numbing] that we’re talking about,” he says. “They tend to be intensified, and they become more persistent in a much smaller portion of individuals.” Indeed, Gitlin notes that many people who experience acute stress do not go on to develop PTSD; in the case of a one-time trauma like the bombing, only around 10 percent will see long-term psychiatric distress, though those who have been exposed to previous traumas or already have anxiety disorders are at greater risk.

And though it may be difficult, Gitlin says the best way for police, or anyone, with lasting emotional trauma to heal is to return to a normal routine. “Police typically will be first responders. That will be quite traumatic, to see the trauma others have been through and help them through it,” he says. “But normally, for most people [limiting time off to] a week or two is probably a good idea. The large majority of people in these kinds of events will recover, so our goal is to help them get back to the normality of their life.”

Whether you’re a police officer or not, getting back to normality can be difficult. If you still feel like you need help, consider a screening for PTSD. Screening for Mental Health, a Wellesley-based national non-profit that focuses on raising awareness and providing treatment for PTSD, is hosting Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Screening Day on Thursday, and a number of Massachusetts locations will be sponsoring testing. It’s an easy, accessible way to get the help you need.