According to the Northern Neurological Alliance, there are 50,000 people living in the North East living with a brain injury or other neurological condition.
Most traumatic brain injuries happen in young men, who statistically take more risks than the rest of the population and can sustain a head injury through road traffic accidents and other risky behaviour such as climbing trees and fighting.
Brain injuries aren’t always caused in this way, however. Stroke, hemorrhage, attempted suicide and infection can all cause brain injury.
When watching programmes on TV where someone sustains a brain injury through a road traffic accident, often the commentary at the end will state that the person fully recovered. What they mean is that the person can walk, eat, drink and breath on their own. In reality people who have had brain injury can have memory problems, suffer from fatigue, develop epilepsy and have a range of social and emotional problems. Of course, some people are “luckier” than others. Depending on where the injury is in the brain, people can be paralysed, need full time care or it can result in death. As the brain is the computer of the body it can result in other consequences such as affecting someone’s ability to regulate their body temperature and feeling cold or hot all the time, and it can affect other sensory abilities such as taste, smell and sight. Brain injury can result in sensory overload – so a person may feel overwhelmed in crowded places. They may lose the ability to find their way around once familiar places as they struggle to locate information relating to where they are and how to get where they want to go.
In the case of stroke, most people experience this down their left side and can lose mobility in left arms and legs. When it affects the right side, this is when the left side of the brain has been damaged and can result in speech being affected. This is known as Aphasia. People with aphasia often report that people think they have a learning disability and talk to them as if they are stupid. Often a person with aphasia can understand what you are saying to them but struggle to get their words out or they may forget the word they want to use. To support someone with aphasia it is important to give them plenty of time to speak and to use any aids such as prompt cards – these can be pictures of the alphabet so the person can point to the letter relating to the first letter of the word they are trying to say, or a picture of a common everyday item.
Brain injury does not affect IQ but does affect the ability to store, retrieve and absorb information in the brain.
Many relationships are put to the test due to the effects of brain injury, as the person who has the brain injury becomes frustrated at their physical and emotional limitations that have happened sometimes overnight. Family members struggle to understand what has happened, why their loved one no longer behaves in the same way as they used to, why they are angry.
Relationship breakdown can be difficult in any circumstance, and can be compounded by a brain injury when people are struggling to come to terms with a life changing injury.
Sometimes people with a brain injury can get into tricky situations as they lack awareness of the consequences of their behaviour – this can sometimes result in them saying and behaving in inappropriate ways and can result in further social isolation. They may also struggle with impulse control and may lack insight into their condition.
For obvious reasons, many people who survive brain injury can suffer from anxiety and depression and it is common for them to avoid situations that most people take for granted including going to shops or using public transport.
The positive (if there are any positives!) is that with a great deal of hard work it is possible to improve your situation if you sustain a brain injury. The brain is made up of many pathways and when part of the brain is damaged, it finds new pathways around the injury. So it takes longer for the signals to reach their destination. This is why fatigue is so common as more energy is used up. In time and with practice these pathways become quicker and it can get slightly easier.
To support someone with a brain injury it is important to make sure you are also well supported. The challenges involved in caring or living with someone with a brain injury can be exhausting physically, mentally and emotionally.
Patience is very important alongside making and keeping clear boundaries in relation to what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. The person with a brain injury may need to be reminded often about these boundaries as they suffer from memory issues, and may also test out if you really mean it.
The most important thing to remember when supporting someone with a brain injury is that each person with a brain injury is an individual and it will affect each person differently. Also each brain injury is unique in how it affects the brain, and there is still a great deal that we don’t know about the brain.