March is Brain Injury Awareness Month, which is a topic very close to my heart. According to the CDC, 2.5 million people sustain a Traumatic Brain Injury every year, and an estimated 5.3 million Americans are living today with disability related to brain injury. Unfortunately, awareness surrounding Brain Injury and how it affects target individuals is limited. There is also a lack of trained specialists who know how to treat and counsel with the brain injured community. So why the huge disconnect?
The first reason is simply that many people are not aware that they or a loved one has a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) or Acquired Brain Injury (ABI). One of my favorite sayings is, “you don’t have the same brain you were born with” because every little thing that happens to your head, every little thing you learn and experience, every little event in your life that affects you in some way, has changed the structure of your brain. Many people believe that in order to have a brain injury you must hit your head significantly, or be in a car accident, or have brain surgery, but this isn’t necessarily true. The two most common causes of a brain injury include falls and motor vehicle accidents, but you can sustain a brain injury from almost any damage to the head. I worked with a client who sustained her TBI simply from falling out of a chair and hitting her head on a concrete floor. I’ve worked with clients who have sustained a brain injury from Cerebral Inflammation (Meningitis, Encephalitis, etc.), from Strokes, from Concussions, and from Whiplash. You don’t have to necessarily hit your head hard to have a brain injury. Now this information isn’t to scare you, albeit it’s probably doing a pretty good job; it’s to help raise awareness and help you to be more aware of how a brain injury can occur and why awareness of brain injury is lacking.
The second reason that awareness of brain injury is so limited is because the symptoms of brain injury are so complex and so diverse that they are very often misdiagnosed. The brain is an intricate and elaborate system, so it makes sense that if you damage some of your neuronal connections that the symptoms that result will not always follow a strict set of rules. Some of the more common diagnoses that individuals with brain injury are wrongly labelled with include Developmental Delay, Intellectual Disability, Dyslexia, Depression, Anxiety, ADHD, various Personality Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, and even Psychosis. Now this isn’t to say that individuals with brain injury can’t have comorbid diagnoses, they definitely can. However, most typically, a majority of the difficulties and symptoms that people with brain injury face ARE from their brain injury. False diagnoses can be detrimental for individuals who are actually living with a brain injury because it often means they get the wrong type of treatment. I’ve worked with many people with brain injury who had been through various Mental Health Programs and had some pretty maladaptive coping skills because of it. The best way to diagnose a brain injury is with various brain scans, a Neuropsychological Exam, and observation by a professional trained in brain injury.
So what resources are out there for brain injured individuals? Since March is Brain Injury Awareness Month there are many activities you can participate in to support research and awareness of brain injury. There are many marches and get-togethers around this time of year. There are also some great campaigns, like the Brain Injury Association’s #ChangeYourMind Awareness Campaign. You can register for the Brain Injury Association’s campaign and receive access to informative emails and their Facebook group. You can also join NeuroRestorative’s #HeadsUp campaign. If you live in or around Albany, Brain Injury Advocacy Day is on March 26th at the State Legislative Office and you can register on the BIANYS website. There are also events like The Moving Message at St. Rose in Albany and Brain Injury Awareness Day (if you live in Albany, this is usually held at Tawasentha Park in Guilderland NY).
As far as treatment options, unfortunately that is somewhat limited. The most evidence-backed treatment for people with brain injury is Cognitive Rehabilitation, a very specific type of therapy designed to help brain injured individuals retrain their thinking and cognitive skills so they can integrate more smoothly into their community. Look for professionals who specialize in Cognitive Rehabilitation in your area and find one that fits you or your loved one’s needs the most. The TBI Waiver is also an essential resource for people living with a brain injury. It’s a program funded by Medicaid and provides many different services to individuals with brain injury, including Service Coordination, access to various brain injury support groups and therapy, access to transportation services, access to Community Integration Counselors (a counselor who specializes in brain injury), access to Independent Living Services, and so much more. The TBI Waiver is available in various States including New York, Massachusetts, and Florida but make sure to research if this service is available where you live.
And remember to wear green for Brain Injury Awareness Month!
By: Marion White, MHC – LP, EAP Counselor