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Brain Injury and Mental Health: How to Heal Your Mind After Injury

patient talking to therapist about brain injury and mental health

Brain injury and mental health issues have a complicated relationship.

Today’s article will explain how doctors tell the difference between the effects of brain injury and mental health problems.

It will also look at what mental health problems can arise after a brain injury.

Finally, we will show what treatments are available for those suffering from brain injury and mental health disorders.

Let’s get started!

The Link Between Brain Injury and Mental Health Issues

There’s some disagreement in the medical community about the difference between the effects of brain injury and mental illness.

Some argue that the two are separate diagnoses. That’s because most brain injury patients only display a few symptoms of a mental disorder, but not enough to meet the full criteria.

Other researchers say that the two are essentially the same thing. After all, both the effects of brain injury and mental illness are a result of dysfunction in the brain.

What is not in dispute, however, is that brain injury definitely increases a person’s risk of developing a psychiatric disorder.

According to a large-scale study from the University of Copenhagen, a traumatic brain injury increases a person’s risk of schizophrenia by 65 percent and depression by 59 percent.

Distinguishing the Effects of Brain Injury from Mental Disorders

It is undeniable that there is an overlap between brain injury and mental health issues.

However, just because you experience the same symptoms that psychiatric patients do doesn’t mean you have the same condition.

For a doctor to diagnose you with a specific mental health condition, you must display all the traits of that disorder set out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-5).

For example, if you have trouble paying attention or concentrating, you won’t be diagnosed with ADHD unless you also display other symptoms, such as fidgeting and frequent talking.

Or if you suffer from extreme mood swings similar to bipolar disorder, you need to also experience periods of mania and other symptoms before doctors consider you bipolar.

Types of Mental Health Disorders after Brain Injury

Sometimes, however, people with brain injuries will display all the symptoms of a mental health disorder.

Here are some of the most common ones that you can experience after brain injury.

Major Depressive Disorder

elderly lady struggling with depression after brain injury

Major depressive disorder (also known as clinical depression) is the most serious form of depression.

This disorder is more than just feeling low or unmotivated. To be diagnosed with depression, you must display 5 of the following symptoms for over two weeks.

  • Sad or irritated most of the day
  • Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Trouble staying asleep
  • Sleeping more than usual
  • Restlessness
  • Difficulty concentrating and foggy thinking
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Suicidal thoughts

Many brain injury patients exhibit these symptoms. In fact, one study followed 91 TBI patients for six months and found that 33 percent met the criteria for major depression during that time.


mania is another problem that can affect people with brain injury and mental health issues

Mania is the polar opposite of depression. It refers to periods of great excitement and hyperactivity.

For a doctor to diagnose you with mania, you must experience three of the following symptoms for over a week:

  • Reduced need for sleep
  • Talking excessively fast
  • Racing thoughts
  • Impulsive and risky behavior
  • Easily distracted
  • Abnormally high self-esteem
  • Pacing or fidgeting
  • Disorientation or disorganized thoughts

You can also experience hallucinations during a manic episode.

While mania is less common in TBI patients than depression is, it still affects about 9 percent of survivors.

In addition, people with mania caused by TBI are less likely to experience euphoria and are more likely to engage in risky behavior.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

man with PTSD, sitting on waters edge

PTSD normally occurs after a significant, traumatic event like combat, assault, or near-death experiences.

In the past, most doctors believed TBI patients could not develop PTSD, because traumatic brain injury usually involved post-traumatic amnesia.

After all, how could anybody experience PTSD over an injury they didn’t remember.

Nowadays, however, doctors recognize that PTSD usually follows a brain injury.

The symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Involuntary reminiscing of the life-threatening event.
  • Avoiding people and places that remind you of your injury
  • Emotional numbness and feeling detached from friends and family
  • Overwhelming feelings of shame and guilt
  • Constantly feeling on your guard, irritable, or easily startled
  • Anxiety and insomnia
  • Angry outbursts

Many of these symptoms also overlap with other TBI symptoms. What defines PTSD is feeling immobilized by them.

According to one study, around 27 percent of severe brain injury survivors displayed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is much rarer than the other illnesses mentioned so far.

In fact, only about 1% of brain injury patients display all the symptoms of true OCD. This is about the same rate as the general population.

With that said, many TBI survivors will exhibit repetitive and obsessive behavior, which can look a lot like OCD.

However, to qualify as true OCD, the behavior must offer temporary relief from anxiety.


psychosis is a rare mental health disorder after brain injury

Psychotic breaks are the least common mental disorders to appear after brain injury.

The ones that develop them do so within the first year. Sometimes symptoms can appear after five years.

Symptoms of psychosis include:

  • Auditory and visual hallucinations
  • Paranoid or persecutory delusions
  • Aggression
  • Nonsense words
  • Rapid speech
  • Anti-social behavior
  • Disorganized thoughts and behavior

When psychosis follows a brain injury, the most common symptom is auditory hallucinations.

According to one study, 93 percent of TBI patients with psychosis reported hearing voices in their head that weren’t their own.

Treating Brain Injury and Mental Health Together

psychotherapy can help you understand and overcome the effects of brain injury and mental health issues in your life

Treating a mental health disorder after brain injury will require support from a variety of professionals.

If possible, it’s best to seek the help of a neuropsychologist: a trained clinical psychologist who specializes in the effects of brain injury.

Since they are intimately familiar with both brain injury and mental health, they will know the most effective ways to heal your mind.

Some methods they might suggest include:

  • Talk therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Mindfulness and meditation
  • Cognitive-Behavioral therapy
  • Medication

You will most likely need a combination of these treatments before you see results.

If you can’t find a neuropsychologist near you, other psychologists can also help. Just make sure they are familiar with the effects of brain injury.

Brain Injury and Mental Health: Conclusion

Brain injury and mental health issues are both complicated, crippling conditions.

That’s why it’s important to seek support for your mental health after brain injury.

Even if you are not displaying any symptoms at the moment, a good counselor can give you the tools to stay mentally and emotionally healthy.

If you can find effective coping mechanisms, you will learn ways to live a happy and fulfilling life after brain injury.

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