When someone arrives at University Medical Center New Orleans after a traumatic event, it can be the beginning of emotional challenges in managing their recovery. Whether the person has been in a car accident, an accident at work, a violent incident or any other situation, the UMC team ensures they receive holistic care. dr Erika Rajo, a trauma psychologist, leads the Trauma Recovery Team, a team of mental health professionals who work with physicians to ensure each patient’s physical and emotional needs are met. Here Dr. Rajo on how the treatment works and why it is so important.
What are integrated medical services?
This means that mental health services are integrated into the care of a person who comes for medical treatment. The people I see in the hospital don’t come to see a psychologist. You’re here for another medical reason. Upon their arrival, my team turns to providing patients and their loved ones with information about common trauma reactions and to check on how they are doing mentally and emotionally. Sometimes they want to talk right away. In other cases, we leave them information about our resources, such as our outpatient clinic and support groups. We offer different options, but we also pick up the person where they are. We don’t push anything they aren’t willing to do.
How can a person’s mental health affect their physical recovery after trauma?
If someone doesn’t go to physical therapy because they’re afraid to leave their home, it can affect their progress. Sleep has a major impact on both emotional and physical functioning. So if someone is not sleeping due to depression, anxiety or PTSD, it can also affect their physical condition. These are just two examples. Given this strong mind-body connection, we work closely with the patient’s primary care team to help them understand how psychological factors can affect an individual’s engagement in the treatment process and their interactions with providers.
What reactions do trauma patients have when you contact them?
People are more receptive than not. I’m always quick to let them know that our visits are routine and part of their overall care. I think what’s great about our process is that people who might not otherwise go to a psychiatric hospital or see signs of psychological trauma get that information immediately after something happens.
Do trauma patients experience psychological effects immediately after the event or later?
It depends. It’s situation-specific and individualized, since the way someone perceives and reacts to an event is influenced by many variables. For example, previous exposure to trauma, whether direct or from someone close to them, social support, existing strengths, and coping resources. Other factors include the severity of the physical injuries, stress related to insurance or finance, safety concerns, and whether anyone else was injured or died in the event.
It’s possible to have no signs of psychological trauma or PTSD in the early days, and then things show up later. A common trauma response is compartmentalization or avoidance. People might push their thoughts aside and move on, but later be triggered by something that reminds them of the traumatic event. However, only about 20-30% of people with a traumatic injury will develop PTSD, so it’s important to note that most people are able to return to their daily lives without experiencing significant psychological distress.
What is it like to work in a hospital and healthcare system that places such a high value on mental health care?
It’s amazing because psychology hasn’t always been well received in the medical field, even in other hospitals I’ve worked in. Our team is greatly appreciated and I think people continue to recognize the importance of the psychological aspects of trauma. We are automatically consulted on every trauma patient, but sometimes doctors come to us about a non-trauma patient because they see signs of emotional distress. This means that people here are realizing the importance of addressing both the physical and psychological aspects of caregiving. We have also undertaken a number of initiatives to support our own healthcare workers and providers as they may experience secondary trauma from the delivery of treatment. By supporting the psychological well-being of patients and providers, the work we do in the Trauma Recovery Team reflects the hospital’s broader mission of providing trauma-informed, patient-centered care to our community.