Acute psychological trauma in the critically ill: Patient and family perspectives

Volha Dziadzko, Mikhail A. Dziadzko, Margaret Johnson, Ognjen Gajic, Lioudmila V. Karnatovskaia

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


Objective Post-intensive care syndrome (PICS), which encompasses profound psychological morbidity, affects many survivors of critical illness. We hypothesize that acute psychological stress during the intensive care unit (ICU) confinement likely contributes to PICS. In order to develop strategies that mitigate PICS associated psychological morbidity, it is paramount to first characterize acute ICU psychological stress and begin to understand its causative and protective factors. Methods A structured interview study was administered to adult critical illness survivors who received ≥ 48 h of mechanical ventilation in medical and surgical ICUs of a tertiary care center, and their families. Results Fifty patients and 44 family members were interviewed following ICU discharge. Patients reported a high level of psychological distress. The families' perception of patient's stress level correlated with the patient's self-estimated stress level both in daily life (rho = 0.59; p < 0.0001) and in ICU (rho = 0.45; p = 0.002). 70% of patients experienced fear of death, 38% had additional other fears, 48% had hallucinations. Concerns included inability to communicate (34%), environmental factors (30%), procedures and restraints (24%), and being intubated (12%). Emotional support of family/friend/staff/clergy (86%), and physical therapy/walking (14%) were perceived to be important mitigating factors. Clinicians' actions that were perceived to be very constructive included reassurance (54%), explanations (32%) and physical touch (8%). Conclusions Fear, hallucinations, and the inability to communicate, are identified as central contributors to psychological stress during an ICU stay; the presence of family, and physician's attention are categorized as important mitigating factors. Patients and families identified several practical recommendations which may help assuage the psychological burden of the ICU stay.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)68-74
Number of pages7
JournalGeneral Hospital Psychiatry
StatePublished - Jul 1 2017


  • Intensive care unit
  • Post intensive care syndrome
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Psychological stress

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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