Release Date: June 27, 2000
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Driving. Most of us have accepted it as part of our daily lives, whether or not we're behind the wheel. However, few of us -- when we leave our homes to go to work, the grocery store or school -- expect to be involved in a motor-vehicle accident that will change the course of our lives in an instant.
So says Gayle Beck, professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo, who has been evaluating and treating victims of motor-vehicle accidents for several years. Beck, whose area of expertise is anxiety disorders, is reaching out to members of the community who have been involved in a major accident to help them work through the "aftermath of trauma."
Her motor-vehicle-accident clinic caters to individuals who have been involved in serious wrecks -- not minor fender-benders -- in which a victim suffered major injuries, experienced a threat of death or, in the worst cases, a fatality or fatalities occurred. Beck says the term "motor-vehicle accident" is used because victims often are pedestrians or bicyclists or motorcyclists -- not simply those behind the wheel or riding in an automobile.
"One of the reasons that I wanted to do this was that we…spend a lot of time studying very specific kinds of trauma; combat and rape are perhaps the two most studied," she says. "It seems to me that we have ignored a very common trauma that is actually more prevalent than rape or combat, and that is serious motor-vehicle accidents."
The project, which began as a relatively small operation, has grown. More than 100 people have been assessed through the clinic and, of those, 25 have been offered treatment, Beck says.
While both physical and psychological implications follow a crash, she explains, the primary focus is treating individuals who develop post-traumatic stress disorder.
"It's a bit like having trouble emotionally digesting what happened to you," she says of PTSD. Some common symptoms of this type of PTSD include a fear of driving, intrusive thoughts about the accident in which the individual has been involved and becoming physically wound up or jumpy, Beck says.
"We focus on providing clinical and psychiatric analysis," she says. "Are there specific mental-health disorders that the person is currently having? And specifically, are they having PTSD problems that are directly related to the motor-vehicle accident?"
The treatment Beck uses in her clinic is modeled after an approach described by Edward Blanchard in his book, "After the Crash: Assessment and Treatment of Motor Vehicle Accident Survivors," and involves cognitive behavior therapy.
Cognitive behavior therapy, Beck says, focuses on "the here and now" and examines four components:
• Behavioral -- "I don't like or want to drive"
• Physiological -- "My heart races every time I hear about a car accident"
• Cognitive -- scary thoughts about the dangers of driving
• Emotional -- general feelings of depression or fear
Accident victims often are referred to the clinic by emergency-room physicians or other health-care providers who are familiar with the treatment program. Individuals interested in the program first are interviewed and evaluated, and if a diagnosis of PTSD is reached, they will be admitted into a 10-week treatment program, with additional follow-up, Beck says.
The treatment, which originally was provided in one-on-one sessions, now is provided in groups of four and six individuals in an effort to be more responsive, she says.
While the program has been immensely helpful to the participants, Beck points out that symptoms of PTSD can diminish quickly for some but persist at length for others, who may need additional psychiatric treatment.
For Beck, the most important aspect of the program is its unique service. Often, she says, victims are referred by a physician to a chiropractor, massage therapist or physical therapist without taking into account an accident victim's mental health following a crash.
"We've heard numerous stories from some of our folks who say, 'You're the first person who understands this,'" she says. "People often feel very alone and feel a sense of shame or embarrassment about the fact that they're not coping better."
Beck says she's delighted to be able to offer treatment to accident victims who are struggling with their trauma.
"There aren't too many services in this area that are designed to address PTSD, specifically in people who have been in car crashes," she says. "We really are offering a service to the community and are filling a need."