This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Group therapy benefits car-accident survivors

Published: April 7, 2005

Contributing Editor

Working with survivors of terrible and sometimes nightmarish car accidents, UB psychologist J. Gayle Beck has developed a new group-therapy treatment program for people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of their accidents.

Although conventional wisdom warns that group discussions sometimes cause PTSD patients to "relive" their traumas, Beck says group cognitive-behavior therapy, when managed carefully, is an effective way for accident survivors to overcome PTSD and again lead normal lives.

Funded by the National Institute for Mental Health, her research aims to develop a group therapy program that can be used by psychologists nationwide to treat the thousands of people each year who develop PTSD after traumatic car accidents.

"Group therapy, if it's very skills-oriented, makes sense for a lot of PTSD patients," explains Beck, professor of psychology and director of the Motor Vehicle Accident Clinic at UB. "The disorder often leaves a person feeling isolated and misunderstood, so it's helpful to be in a room of other people who have the same kind of feelings. Second, in a group setting patients can be more effective than a therapist in encouraging one another to 'do their homework' and take important steps toward improvement.

"From a service-provider perspective, being able to effectively treat more than one person at a time certainly makes sense, too," she adds.

A noted authority on PTSD, Beck is concluding a three-year research trial for the 14-week group-therapy program. The program has shown promising results for more than 40 local car-accident survivors who have participated, she says. The research will be described in a forthcoming issue of Cognitive & Behavioral Practice.

Six new patients soon will begin Beck's program, which meets once a week for two hours, and Beck is recruiting new participants for the therapy program.

Most participants, she says, have been in "fairly serious car accidents that were terrifying...where there was the perception that you or someone else could have been seriously injured or killed."

In Beck's treatment program, patients are taught coping skills to manage common PTSD symptoms: avoidance, depression, anger and anxiety. Participants are instructed not to rehash traumatic events.

"We haven't completely analyzed the data, but my sense is our treatment is producing decent-sized gains for nearly all of our participants," Beck says. "People who before treatment were too afraid to drive at all are now driving. They're not having as many intrusive thoughts about the accident; they're not preoccupied with it all the time; they're not as depressed.

"They've developed coping skills to manage the symptoms of PTSD."

Car-accident survivors suffering from PTSD, according to Beck, typically exhibit up to three common symptoms. They re-experience their trauma in recurring dreams and replay it in their thoughts throughout the day. They exhibit avoidance behaviors—refusing to drive or refusing to acknowledge distressful feelings caused by the accident. And, they are in a constant state of "hyper-arousal," constantly on the lookout for potential trauma or calamity.

Complicating matters, PTSD among car-accident survivors is under-diagnosed nationwide. Most physicians necessarily are focused on a patient's physical injuries immediately after a car accident, Beck says. They do not typically screen for PTSD.

Cultural attitudes toward car-accident survivors also contribute to a lack of awareness about PTSD, she says.

"We're so inured in this culture to terrible things happening every day that the general attitude is 'It's just a car accident, get over it,'" she adds.

As part of her research, Beck is developing a PTSD screening protocol for physicians who treat car-accident survivors.