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On 28th to 29th April 2021, Australia marks the 25th anniversary of the Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania where 35 people lost their lives and some 18 people were wounded. Following Port Arthur, Australia’s gun control laws were significantly tightened.
For those at Port Arthur on that day, or for those connected to what unfolded, the anniversary can be a time that stirs distressing memories and emotions.
Professor David Forbes, Director of Phoenix Australia – Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health, says anniversaries of any traumatic event can evoke strong emotions for those with existing mental health conditions, such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or exacerbate these psychological difficulties.
“Even 25 years later, anniversaries can be difficult times for those who experience traumatic events, particularly events of this magnitude. Importantly, the mental health and wellbeing outcomes for people following trauma vary considerably, however, it’s important to recognise that anniversaries can still be difficult for all those involved in the event, even people who have recovered well,” says Professor Forbes.
“At times we speak of anniversaries as only being difficult for those who haven’t recovered, but the anniversary of an horrendous event like that which occurred at Port Arthur is likely to have an emotional response in almost everyone who was there, irrespective of how they are functioning today.”
For the significant minority of people who experience adjustment difficulties after a traumatic event, anniversaries can present a greater challenge and cause a stronger psychological reaction. Putting in place some simple arrangements in preparation for an anniversary can provide some protection.
“Self-care is important, and we advise people to look at ways in which they can take care of themselves and get the support they need from family and friends,” says Professor Forbes.
“On the day, we recommend people are conscious of not doing things that are too stressful, that they have breaks in the day to do things that are relaxing, and that they remind family and friends that the anniversary might be a difficult day so they can offer support. These things are more important the more likely a person is to have a stronger reaction on that day.”
Milestone anniversaries also generate more media attention and so those affected need to be aware that news and social media may be saturated with coverage of the event and its aftermath. Being aware of this in advance can help people plan their exposure to media information and coverage.
It’s never too late to get effective treatment
Importantly, Professor Forbes emphasises that there are evidence-based treatments that can be very effective for managing PTSD – even years after a traumatic event.
“These treatments can be effective even when the PTSD might have run a very chronic course over a long period of time – even 25 years, as in the case of Port Arthur. If people continue to experience difficulties and haven’t sought treatment, or if the treatment they sought didn’t work for them initially, they can still reach out. It is never too late to get effective treatment,” he says.
The most effective treatment for PTSD is trauma-focussed cognitive behavioural therapy that helps a person safely and gradually deal with traumatic memories. It helps them address how they think about the event and addresses their beliefs about themselves, other people and the world that might be hindering recovery.
“It helps them address those things in a way that allows them to re-engage and recover,” says Professor Forbes.
“If there are things people have avoided since that traumatic event, trauma-focussed cognitive behavioural therapy helps them gradually address those issues and reclaim their life.”
Researching new treatments
Research and trials continue to help those affected by PTSD receive the most effective treatments available. Phoenix Australia is currently undertaking a number of intervention studies including the IMPACT trial that is evaluating two well known psychological treatments for PTSD and how they can improve quality of life, and the BDNF trial that is investigating whether treatment outcomes with Prolonged Exposure can be improved by increasing levels of a protein called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) through aerobic exercise.
“Phoenix Australia is always seeking to improve treatments for prevention and early intervention through to treatment for chronic mental health difficulties after trauma,” says Professor Forbes.