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Concussions And Mental Illness 

Sheridan Taylor

In which our hero talks about another possible reason people display mental illness symptoms and suffer needlessly.

So here’s a fun fact: concussion can cause long-lasting mental illness symptoms. I’ve had seven. I’d have gone off the deep end no matter what, but seven concussions were probably not helpful. I know people who can’t understand why they have mental illness symptoms, and it freaks them out more than the actual illness. (I get it. “How did this happen? Why me?”) It becomes a downward spiral. Sometimes the cause is getting whacked on the melon really hard.

It’s normal to struggle after mild traumatic brain injury. Pre-existing mental illness can get worse, or slow recovery down. Concussion can cause anxiety, depression, mood swings, PTSD, etc. to show up again. Over 80% of concussion patients report personality changes or symptoms of depression, anxiety, and PTSD after the injury.

Even a seemingly mild concussion can mess up how neurons and blood vessels work, meaning neurons don’t get nutrients they need. It can be that simple. Parts of the brain aren’t working the way they should, so other parts ramp up to cover, and other parts get more nutrients than they need, depriving the working parts.

Concussion symptoms and signs can mimic or cause mental illness. You can be sensitive to light, loud noises, movement. Your brain can’t work as fast as it did, so you get frustrated or embarrassed or overwhelmed. Headaches don’t help. Insomnia doesn’t either. Hormone production gets messed up. And you have lousy memory, can’t focus, can’t remember words, and feel stupid, which is frustrating as fuck. Concussion can throw your autonomic nervous system out of whack, so you’re perpetually on “fight or flight.” Hypervigilance and the whole bit, just like PTSD and anxiety.

Concussion causes max stress. Being unable to concentrate or understand shit and having to deal with family, money, medical, and legal problems is incredibly frustrating. Not being able to work or parent as well as you could, can cause immense marital stress or job loss. Students may see serious drops in grades, with corresponding loss of self-esteem. Nobody really understands the full effects of concussion, and it’s an invisible injury, so patients can feel like their suffering isn’t understood. All that shit can cause people to isolate because they feel disconnected, and boom! Mental illness. Add in the fear of never recovering and it’s no wonder concussion patients can suffer from depression and anxiety, huh?

Concussion patients often do two things to guarantee mental illness: catastrophizing and behavior limiting. We do shit like overstate the awfulness of things and avoid doing things we enjoyed before so we can avoid social interaction. Don’t do either. You’re working real hard to give yourself anxiety and depression.

Okay, that’s a quick ‘n’ dirty look at the relationship between concussion and mental illness. It’s way more complicated, of course. It’s also more complicated in terms of recovery because you have physical changes in the brain to contend with. But then, “regular” ol’ mental illness causes physical changes in the brain, and we can use our thoughts to repair those, so… I guess you got work to do huh?