Tracy Morgan Car Accident: Crashes Leave Many with Emotional Scars
Comedian Tracy Morgan on April 26, 2014.
Credit: Randy Miramontez/Shutterstock.com

Tracy Morgan made his first public appearance this week since he was critically injured in a car accident nearly a year ago, and his friend, the comedian Jimmy Mack, was killed. The interview reveals that he's still dealing with the emotional fallout from the crash.

"The pain is always going to be there for Jimmy Mack," Morgan said yesterday (June 1) on NBC's "Today" show.  "Bones heal, but the loss of my friend will never heal."

In that he's not alone. Long-lasting emotional and psychological trauma after a vehicle collision is fairly common, especially when someone felt death was imminent, said Justin Kenardy, a psychology professor and the acting director of the Centre of National Research on Disability and Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. That's especially true when the trauma of an accident is bound up with the grief of losing someone, he said.

However, there are treatments that can help people heal from traumatic car accidents, Kenardy said. [Top 10 Stigmatized Health Disorders]

Common trauma

Injuries from motor vehicle accidents are common: About 2.3 million people in the U.S. were injured in car crashes in 2013, and more than 32,000 people died, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Given those numbers, car crashes may be the single-most common traumatic event that ordinary Americans experience, according to a 1999 statement from the American Academy of Family Physicians.

While many people feel shaken after a car accident, up to 30 percent will develop more long-lasting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other psychological issues such as depression or anxiety, Kenardy said. Overall, car accident victims have two to three times the rate of PTSD of the general population, he added.

For people with PTSD, symptoms can include re-experiencing the event — whether through flashbacks or ruminating on the details— being jittery or jumpy around triggers, or having persistent negative thoughts, such as a fixation on the precariousness of life, Kenardy said.

Unconscious trauma

Researchers have found clues about why some people have longer-lasting effects after an accident. For example, people are more likely to experience PTSD if they thought they were going to die in the accident. Traumatic brain injury also makes it more likely that someone will experience PTSD, even if, like Morgan, they can't remember the accident, Kenardy said.

It may seem strange that someone who can't remember an accident may nevertheless have trauma from it. Some of that trauma is experienced vicariously, when someone tells you the details of the accident after the fact, Kenardy said.

On another level, it's simply frightening to have a discontinuity in memory, Kenardy said.

"At one point you're driving down the highway, and then suddenly all you know is that you're in an emergency room or in an ICU [Intensive care unit], with tubes down your throat," Kenardy told Live Science. "That would be, I think, enough to scare most people."

And the unconscious brain may be taking in lots of traumatizing information during the aftermath of a crash, even if it's not stored in conscious memory, Kenardy said.

Morgan's experience

Morgan, who starred on "Saturday Night Live" and "30 Rock," did not say whether he has been diagnosed with PTSD, but he did talk about his struggle with the emotional trauma from the accident in his interview on "Today." He said he has spent hours re-watching the video of the accident on YouTube, and has been feeling down. He seemed to be grieving his friend's death, at one point crying in the interview.

That could be a form of "complicated grief," which is a condition of having intense grief as well as PTSD, Kenardy said. (He has not treated Morgan.)

For people like Morgan, who have lived through harrowing experiences, several treatments can help them deal with the grief and trauma associated with the accident.

One is a trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, which has people revisit the accident in talk therapy with the focus of reinterpreting that experience so it doesn't define their life going forward. Another therapy, called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), uses a similar approach but has people move their eyes when they are remembering or imagining a distressing aspect of their trauma.

Both methods have been shown to work in several clinical trials, Kenardy said. People who are facing complicated grief may need extra therapy to process both the trauma and the loss, he added.

If people show symptoms of PTSD a month after an accident, it's important to get help, not just for their mental health, but for their physical well-being, Kenardy said.

 "If you don't address the psychological trauma, the physical recovery isn't as good," Kenardy said.

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