How should I talk to someone with brain injury or PTSD?

Not everyone has experience in communicating with people with disabilities. Please remember that appropriate etiquette is based primarily upon consideration and respect.

Below are some general suggestions for communication and things to keep in mind when interacting with those with combat-related injuries, such a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

It is important to relax and treat the individual with dignity and respect. Be sure to listen to the individual and treat adults as adults. Do not be afraid to ask questions when you cannot understand or when you are unsure of what to do.

Tips for communicating with people with TBI include:
  • Be prepared to repeat what you say, as some people may have short-term memory deficits.
  • Be patient and supportive. Take the time to understand the individual and be sure they understand you.
  • Try to avoid interrupting the person.
  • If you are in a busy public place, consider moving to a quieter location, as some people with TBI may have difficulty concentrating and focusing.
  • Focus on short-term goals.
Tips for communicating with people with PTSD include:
  • Try to minimize high-pressure situations.
  • Be patient and avoid interrupting the person.
  • Find out what makes the person most comfortable.
Charles J. Sophy, MD
Adolescent Medicine
The best way to talk to someone with PTSD or a brain injury is always with respect. Depending on what it is you need to discuss will dictate the best approach. Be sure to understand what issues they may have due to the disorders. Things such as hearing loss, speech issues, to topics that should not be discussed as they may trigger emotions and behaviors that need a safe environment.
Pam Hays
Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation
A traumatic brain injury (TBI) survivor is usually aware that they have deficits in their thinking, processing, communication, cognitive abilities, even if others do not see them. If you want to communicate effectively with a TBI survivor, do not tell them to be grateful that they have their legs or arms. Do not tell them that you forget things and forget what you are saying and get confused at times too. Do not tell them that it might just be they are getting older and that is why they are having difficulties remembering things. Do not tell them they look good as if that is enough to take all of their pain away. Do not tell them to "man up" as if they have illegitimate reasons to feel emotional pain.

Believe what they are telling you, even if there are no outward signs that they have reeling injuries.  Though you might not understand what it is like to have a traumatic brain injury, what a TBI survivor wants is to have understanding that the core of their being has been altered and though TBI is an invisible wound it is very real to those whose body it invades!
Joanne Duncan-Carnesciali, CPT,NASM Elite Trainer
Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation
There is much information available regarding developing disability awareness skills. The National Center for Physical Activity and Disability at the University of Illinois suggests:
  • Offer assistance with completing forms or understanding written instructions and provide extra time for decision-making. Wait for the client to accept the offer of assistance; do not "over-assist" or be patronizing.
  • Be prepared to repeat what you say, orally or in writing.
  • Be patient, flexible and supportive. Take time to understand the client and make sure the client understands you.
  • If you are in an area with many distractions, consider moving to a quite or private location.

When talking to someone with a brain injury have patience, understanding and respect. Their disability depends on what area of the brain suffered injury; it could affect cognitive, neurological and behavioral function. Be prepared to repeat what you just said and don’t be afraid to engage in conversation. It may take time for a response as the person tries to answer. Be patient and treat everyone with respect.

Most of the time, it is best to talk to someone with a brain injury just like any other person. Many people with brain injuries have very functional lives, and their ability to understand speech and talk with other people is completely normal. However, in very severe brain injuries, people may have difficulty understanding speech or talking to people, and in those cases, it is best to treat them as any normal person until you understand their deficits. 

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.