Concussion & mental health (TBI Therapist podcast interview)

by

In this episode of the TBI Therapist podcast, Jen Blanchette talks with Melanie about the mental health effects of her concussion. You can listen to the entire podcast episode using the player below. If that works better for you, you can read the transcript below the player instead. 

Table of contents:
Concussion and mental health: the unmentioned
Post-concussion syndrome depression
Post-concussion syndrome help
Shame and vulnerability
Support for post-concussion syndrome
Concussion survivor tips
Dealing with post-concussion syndrome
Fun fact: favorite holiday foods
Post-concussion recovery tips

What now follows is a summary of the podcast episode you can listen to using the player above.

Intro to this podcast episode

Dr. Jen Blanchette

[Dr. Jen Blanchette 00:01] Full recovery from concussion is possible. I’m gonna say it again: full recovery from concussion is possible. That’s what my guest is telling us today. Melanie Wienhoven is a wonderful survivor from the Netherlands, who has started her own course and website dedicated to helping folks who survived a concussion.

She talks about her story, and not recovering in the normal timeframe that doctors tell you that you should recover from. She studied cutting edge research, and even has her own podcast dedicated to helping survivors find research information and tools to recover from concussion.

Takeaways from the interview

One of the biggest takeaways from this episode is: don’t wait and see. See someone right away if your symptoms are prolonged. And that’s one thing I can say I’ve been hearing more and more from researchers and survivors – that we don’t need to wait for symptoms. We can move forward, we can keep finding people who are helping us. And that was her second takeaway: that recovery is possible.

She discussed the research of Dr. McCrea who I’m going to look into. Because he told her that recovery is 100% possible. So, I’m very encouraged to hear all of this and have you listen to this inspiring survivor.

Concussion and mental health: the unmentioned

Concussion and mental health

Hi, everyone, welcome to the TBI therapist podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Jen Blanchette, where we explore the heart of brain injury.

Introducing Melanie

Hi Melanie, welcome to the TBI therapist’s podcast. It’s so great to have you.

[Melanie  02:15] Thank you. I’m really happy to be here.

[Dr. Jen Blanchette 02:18] Awesome. And just let us know where you’re joining us from.

[Melanie  02:22] I’m joining you from the Netherlands.

[Dr. Jen Blanchette 02:25] Wonderful, wonderful. So, Melanie, I’m going to ask you a question that I’ve changed up a little bit here and there. But what is one thing about concussion that no one tells you?

The psychological effects of a concussion

[Melanie  02:38] Well, to me, the thing that always stood out is the psychological effects that concussions have. It’s something that never came up in any of the medical conversations I’ve had with medical professionals. It’s something that the people surrounding me knew nothing about. And it’s something that I didn’t expect at all.

So, while all of these psychological effects were going on… Because they start right the moment that you’re experiencing symptoms, that’s when they start coming into your life. I discovered that very late – the state of my mental health. So that’s the one thing that comes up for me that I think people don’t know and don’t talk about a lot.

The mental health stigma

[Dr. Jen Blanchette 03:36] Yeah, and I think it’s just such an important point to highlight for everybody. Because number one, there’s stigma for mental health concerns, we just need to name that that stigma is out there. And I just think there’s a lack of education regarding how intertwined mental and physical health is, especially in concussion recovery. 

So, I don’t think we can have a conversation about concussion recovery without talking about mental health symptoms at all. It’s part of it. It’s just part of it.

[Melanie 04:06] Completely agree. Yes.

“The girl with the concussion”

[Dr. Jen Blanchette 04:10] I was just digging into something you said about you didn’t realize it untill later. So, can you speak a little bit to that?

[Melanie 04:17] Yes. After I sustained my concussion, I first had like one and a half weeks of no symptoms at all. And then all of the symptoms just started hitting me, no pun intended. And with every time every week that passed, I felt that more and more symptoms were coming over me – that was the way it felt. And more and more it started taking over my life.

And more and more I started to see myself as the girl with the concussion instead of the young woman starting her career or just the happy person I had been before. I just started seeing myself as the girl with the concussion, and that defined my identity.

Social isolations slips in

But at the same time, also, my life started crumbling. I started seeing things slipping away from me. Like my career: it wasn’t something that I found that important anymore because I was struggling to get out of bed every day, or to get dressed. But also, for example, friends’ lives. It was hard for me to hear sounds, let alone ask someone how they were doing.

But that means that you get isolated, because you can’t really invest in relationships anymore. You can’t invest in your career, everything. Everything really is influenced by a broken brain. 

Your brain in the center of your life

I always say that it’s the center of your life – your brain. And when it doesn’t work anymore, it’s like this whole it just your whole life doesn’t work anymore. It is not harder than that, actually. It’s very easy to imagine how it works if that breaks down.

[Dr. Jen Blanchette 06:17] Yeah, I’ve often thought about what it would be like if a symphony didn’t have a conductor. Everything would be playing at one time, or the players didn’t know when they were supposed to start and end, and it just sounds like chaos.

Post-concussion syndrome depression

Post-concussion syndrome depression

[Melanie 06:36] Exactly. That’s, that’s one part of it. And the other part of it is that your brain, of course, is the part where you experience your emotions and your passions and everything that drives you in life. 

Personality change after a concussion

So aside from not having a conductor anymore, also, you’re losing grip on all the things that you loved before; the person you were. And you get all these questions about life and how and why it matters: what’s the sense of everything that’s happening to you? 

And yeah, those are questions that I started to experience. They were popping up in my head. And it was only very late that I noticed that my thoughts were very depressive, and that I was very negative about my outlook on life; about hope or positivity. All of those things had really slipped away from me because I wasn’t aware of the psychological side effects of my concussion.

[Dr. Jen Blanchette 07:50] Yeah, and maybe we can go back, and you can just give me a little mini snapshot into your concussion story. And maybe when you noticed that kind of cloud of depression kind of settling in at that point?

My concussion story

[Melanie 08:06] Yes, my concussion happened in 2012 when I fell off my bike. And it was a traffic accident, but it was one-sided. So I caused it myself. It was just plain daylight and there was no alcohol involved – people always ask me that 🙂 But I just drove home from work and an accident happened with the basket that was in front of my bike.

And yeah, it was a very strange experience when it happened. I wasn’t even aware that I could sustain a concussion at that moment, because I didn’t hit my head. So, I landed on my hands and my knees, and then my brain essentially smashed into my skull.

I made a whiplash movement and a lot of sensations followed after that. For example, I didn’t black out, but I couldn’t see anymore. I could hear noises, but I couldn’t understand words. I heard a loud ringing in my ears. I saw this golden train trinkling in my vision. A lot of strange experiences happened.  

My delayed concussion symptoms

And still – afterward – I just wanted to drive straight home and go to bed and sleep. And the next day, I felt like it was a nightmare. So, I didn’t even think to stand still. And I didn’t even think about a concussion until one and a half weeks later.

That was when I started experiencing symptoms, which for me were the ones like: I couldn’t concentrate on work. I couldn’t stand the lights from the monitor on my desk. Those kinds of symptoms. Can you help me remember your question again? You asked me about the origin of my concussion, and then…?

The start of my concussion depression

[Dr. Jen Blanchette 10:02] Yeah, so just kind of the little background of the story. And then maybe when you first noticed those sad thoughts or the depression creeping into what you were experiencing?

[Melanie 10:13] Yeah. So, after that, I was struggling to find my way. So, the first time I went to a doctor, I went to my GP and he advised me to rest. He explained that I should avoid all kinds of stimuli. So, tell my work that I wouldn’t come in, don’t open my laptop, don’t be on my phone, maybe read a book… It was the classic old advice that shouldn’t be given anymore. That already started isolation of course.

And also, if you’re following such advice, you already devoid yourself of all the things that you like to do. And that’s never a good position to be in. Of course, I wasn’t feeling happy. But overall, I was especially confused about what was happening to me: I never had experienced such a thing.

Suicidal thoughts

But it was months later, even two years later, that I experienced depressive thoughts. And I found myself thinking that there was no use. I was wondering about what the point of living was. And even in one moment I found myself overthinking death. 

I clearly remember this train of thought: when I was having it, how my room was at that moment. It’s like a slow motion video in my mind. As I was thinking about ending my life, it was actually the turning point in my recovery.

Because I was depressed, I couldn’t feel: I was feeling numb at that moment. And I couldn’t feel how sad these thoughts would have normally made me. As a healthy person, I would have never thought about ending my life. But there I was, thinking about how I would do that.

The turning point

And then I realized that there are two possible realities. The old me never thought about death: I was happy. And here I am thinking about death. I feel like there’s no way out but death. That death will be the only thing that will help me get out of this mess.

And that’s how I realized that there is a possibility to feel happy again. Because I have felt happy before and I have felt loved. And that’s when I decided that I would do anything to find a way out. Because I already knew what rock bottom looked like, and I didn’t want to sink any lower.

[Dr. Jen Blanchette 13:16] Well, thank you for sharing that. I’m sure that a lot of people have felt that way. And I’ve heard similar thoughts in people’s darkest moments of their brain injury. And there’s so much to why I think that happens.

Social isolation and mental health

Because you isolate people, I think the pandemic has really shown us what isolation can do. We are not meant to be isolated. Humans really need to be with other humans. It’s so important for our mental health and for our physical health. There are so many reasons why we need to be with other people.

So, the previous advice to stay in the dark room, limit your contact with people, is really bad advice. And I think well-meaning doctors just didn’t know what they didn’t know, or they weren’t educated at the time. And to their credit, possibly, guidelines didn’t change. I think just not everyone knows to keep up on guidelines for concussion.

Post-concussion syndrome help

Post-concussion syndrome help

Were there any professionals or any friends who helped you? It doesn’t necessarily have to be a professional.

Hiding my mental state

[Melanie 14:19] Yes, I saw them later on. So back in that moment, I realized that something had to change but I was still very ashamed of my feelings. I was very ashamed of the state of my life, and of my mental health. 

I had not talked with loved ones about it. I had hidden almost all of it. And at that moment, I felt that I had to clean up my own mess, which I don’t recommend to any of the listeners because we have loved ones to support us. 

Reach out if you feel depressed

And yeah, that’s one of the things if I could go back, I would change. I would call someone. And I would try to speak with a psychologist.

Hope for happiness

But back then I, the one thing I could think and also the one thing I could do with my brain, was read. So, I went to the library. And I found books about recovery from trauma, recovery from brain injury, about neuroplasticity, these kinds of things. 

And that’s when I found hope. Hope is the thing that I think pulled me through. Because finally, I had perspective – something I could really reach for.

Recovery after adversity

I saw examples of people who had recovered, I saw people who had experienced so much more. They had experienced way deeper, more intense trauma than I had experienced. And they had been able to turn that around and live a fulfilling life after that.

And they described that they were happier and more joyful and had a more meaningful life after having had experiences that I couldn’t even imagine. That gave me power and hope to work toward something that’s the thing I never let go of. 

[Dr. Jen Blanchette 16:41] That’s awesome. Yeah, so I’m gonna go back if that’s okay, I do this.

[Melanie 16:43] Yes, of course.

Shame and vulnerability

Shame and vulnerability

[Dr. Jen Blanchette 16:47] So, you talked a little bit about feeling a sense of shame regarding your injury. That you didn’t want to tell anyone, you didn’t want to let people in. And what I think shame does, is it makes us hide and it’s really scared of that vulnerability – of meeting people and letting people in. So maybe talk about what helped you, how can we zap through the shame clouds and move through them? What helped you get through that piece?

Brené Brown

[Melanie 17:23] Brené Brown. Just one answer possible.

[Dr. Jen Blanchette 17:32] Yes, I’m kind of paraphrasing a little of her research there about shame and vulnerability, right? Go ahead.

[Melanie 17:37] Yeah, she writes – I believe: I can’t quote her literally – shame can’t stand being spoken out, being shared. Because once you share about shame, it just vaporizes. And I don’t know if that’s true, like in the moment, but yes, shame just wants to be kept to itself. 

Buddhism and compassion

Before reading her book, I never shared much. And reading her book, I discovered that I had been in this magic ring of shame. And the only way out was to share about it. And through her stories, but also reading more about Buddhism, and more about wholehearted living and compassion, and empathy and all of these really beautiful concepts that came to life for me when I started practicing them, I discovered that I was just on my way. 

I don’t want you to feel alone

I tried my best. And I can share my story so that others can learn from it. And that’s it. There’s no reason for me to withhold anything anymore. I’m now sharing with you the moments that were so shameful for me before. But now they are just things that I can share with others so that they don’t feel that alone as I did. That’s the most important thing for me.

Vulnerability is uncomfortable

And I think sharing about the things that we go through sometimes is really hard when we’re still in the middle of it. So, it’s easier for me now. But still, I feel that it isn’t normal to talk about these things. I don’t have an issue with it anymore. I don’t feel ashamed. 

But not everyone wants to hear it, because it makes you feel vulnerable as well. It’s very close to everyone’s heart. When you talk about these things… Some people really don’t like that. So, it’s very important to choose who you talk to when you are sharing things that are really intense for you.

Support for post-concussion syndrome

Support for post-concussion syndrome

[Dr. Jen Blanchette 20:24] Did you find that there were certain people that you could share with what you were struggling with when you were kind of in the midst of the messy middle as Brené would say? Were there those that you could talk to and some people maybe that you couldn’t?

Sharing your story with people

[Melanie 20:37] Yes, yes, of course. I think we all have that. I had some people who I could share with… Well, you can share with someone, but the question is: how do they respond? So I could share with everyone, but the ones who really connected with me on that are the persons who are now closest to me. 

Because you’ve been through something that’s so deep, that makes a connection that’s really meaningful. And sometimes it also changes those people. And that’s a beautiful thing to go through together.

Post-concussion syndrome support groups

[Dr. Jen Blanchette 21:16] I think what you’re touching on here is community and the importance of community in recovery. And I don’t know what it’s like in your country, what kind of support is available for folks. Did you lean into the brain injury community or the concussion community in your area? Was that helpful?

[Melanie 21:37] Well, I didn’t. That’s one of the things that I now advise people to do, really, because community and support from people who have experienced the same is just invaluable. 

Visit psychologists during recovery

But in the end, I did go to psychologists and that helped me immensely. So that’s one thing that I always advise people: you can’t visit enough psychologists – really. You will always get something out of it.

[Dr. Jen Blanchette 22:04] Yeah, yes. Right. And I believe that as well. And I practice what I preach, I see somebody too. Especially if you’re doing emotional work. You got stuff you got to work out because it’s vulnerable.

[Melanie 22:23] Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.

Concussion survivor tips

Concussion survivor tips

[Dr. Jen Blanchette 22:27] Wonderful. Well, I’m wondering if you can share maybe two or three tips or insights with the listeners. They don’t have to be tips, it could be just like insights, things that you’ve learned that are the most important things that you found, as a survivor of a concussion?

Don’t wait-and-see

[Melanie 22:45] Yes. So, one of the first things that came very early in the process is: don’t wait and see for doctors, or professionals, or anyone you respect, to fix your concussion for you. It could be that they do. But it could also very well be that they don’t, or that they don’t really know what to do with you. Especially if you’ve had your concussion for a while already.

It’s so important to follow your gut that there could be something more that you could be doing. That you get toward more of an active recovery instead of this wait-and-see, very passive way of approaching recovery. It’s something that really delays your recovery in the end. And that’s a lesson that I paid dearly for. So that’s one that I want to share.

Post-concussion syndrome isn’t permanent

And also, if you’re suffering from post-concussion syndrome, like I did… I think the jury’s still out on when it’s officially post-concussion syndrome after a concussion – if you haven’t recovered between two weeks or three months after injury, it doesn’t really matter. 

But if you hear that you have post-concussion syndrome, or you self-diagnose that, it’s so important not to get paralyzed by the word syndrome. I did that. And it feels like syndrome is something like forever, right? It feels heavy. 

What you do today, matters

But in fact, it isn’t anything different than having a concussion that hasn’t cleared up yet. Tomorrow doesn’t have to look like today. And what you do today matters.I fully recovered after six years, after doctors told me that I would never recover, that my brain damage was beyond repair. And still I recovered.

Because in the end I figured that I didn’t accept that life in which my brain was broken, and in which I couldn’t chase any of my dreams. I started studying and researching and experimenting. I experimented so much on myself. But in the end, I found that what I do today really matters for tomorrow.

You can do things that hinder your recovery; you can do things that help your recovery. You can do things that help you feel safe and secure, to experiment and to try things. And you can do things to really help yourself feel lousy and feel like I felt – like the concussion girl. That was my identity. But if I was saying that to myself all the time, I wasn’t changing my future for the positive. So that’s something that I really want to share.

Dealing with post-concussion syndrome

Dealing with post-concussion syndrome

[Dr. Jen Blanchette 25:51] Wonderful. And was all of your recovery and how you recovered, was that all self-studies? Or did you see other folks, other providers, centers? What did that look like for you?

We all need help with recovery

[Melanie 26:04] Well, I recently read a sentence that I completely agree with: there’s no such thing as self-made. So, I’ve had help of course, I didn’t visit any concussion or brain injury centers. But I had this psychologist later on. I had Brené Brown. I had a psychiatrist from England, who wrote a book about trauma recovery. So, I read a lot of books, and a lot of people influenced me.

And also, right at the start of my recovery, I went to a rehabilitation program. That wasn’t for brain injury, but it was for people who had heard from the doctors that they couldn’t be helped anymore. All of us were in the gray area. It was not a rehabilitation center in which I learned how to cure my concussion, but I learned how to cope with adversity and uncertainty. So those were more psychological coping tools. 

Outdated brain injury knowledge

But my real recovery only happened like three to four years after injury, so when I started learning. Most of my recovery happened in the final year before I completely recovered, so five years after injury. 

Which is way beyond the statute of limitations I would say: doctors told me that after two years, no further recovery was possible. This is very outdated knowledge. Well, it isn’t knowledge, but…

I recovered 6,5 years after injury

So, most of my recovery came from studying and researching and experimenting so much, and studying patients’ cases as well. And then I built a program out of all of that. And after so many years, I felt that things were changing for me. 

After six years, six and a half years actually, I finally… One day I woke up and I thought: it’s gone. It’s really gone. I don’t feel any of those symptoms anymore. And now that’s already been more than two years. So, I really know it’s gone. Because I never had it anymore.

Fun fact: favorite holiday foods

Holiday foods

[Dr. Jen Blanchette 28:26] Wow. Wow. That’s wonderful. Well, we’re going to enter the wrap-up where I ask you just a couple of questions at the end, if that’s okay. So, one of them is just a fun question. It will let us know a little bit about who you are. What is your favorite holiday food? Who does that remind you of?

Dutch holidays

[Melanie 28:52] That’s a wonderful question. Holiday food… So, we, as Dutch people, are a bit different than Americans, right?

[Dr. Jen Blanchette 29:02] That is why I want to know, because everyone is different with their holiday food, right?

[Melanie 29:06] You are very good at celebrating holidays. Let me think… Okay, the one thing that I think about is when I was a child, and on Christmas Eve, we would eat… Oh, how am I going to translate?

[Dr. Jen Blanchette 29:24] It is just fine. You can just try your best, what does it look like?

“Sausage with spots”

[Melanie 29:28] I think the literal translation would be sausage with spots.

[Dr. Jen Blanchette 29:33] Really interesting.

[Melanie 29:35] So, it’s like sausage from… what do you call that…. The guy who really kills the animals.

[Dr. Jen Blanchette 29:44] The butcher.

[Melanie 29:45] Butcher, sorry, yes. I’m sorry, vegans.

[Dr. Jen Blanchette 29:52] Not a vegan podcast. Good stuff comes out, that is why I love this question.

[Melanie 30:00] Yeah, it was juicy too. So, my mom would get these sausages from the butcher. And then they would be in this cooking pan, and we would have bread from the bakery. This was all luxury. Like, we normally wouldn’t go to the butcher and the bakery, just to the supermarket. 

A family tradition

And then you would get the bread and put the sausage on the bread and put some of the gravy on it. And then I was just happy as a child. It reminds me of sitting at the table with my grandparents. It was something that they already did when they were children. So, it’s just a happy memory. 

But it really… It’s not even Dutch. I don’t think most Dutch people know it.

[Dr. Jen Blanchette 30:49] It’s a family tradition, right?

[Melanie 30:51] Yeah.

[Dr. Jen Blanchette 30:52] We have those, too. In my family I make Spanakopita, I talked about it in another podcast. This is a Greek dish that I make for Christmas, and I have no Greek heritage. So, it’s random.

[Melanie 31:05] But it’s something that gets ingrained in your family tradition, right?

[Dr. Jen Blanchette 31:09] Right. Right.

[Melanie 31:10] Yeah. Yeah. And then it reminds you like: now it’s Christmas.

[Dr. Jen Blanchette 31:14] Yes. Yes. I love those things.

[Melanie 31:17] Yes, that’s wonderful.

Post-concussion recovery tips

Post-concussion recovery tips

[Dr. Jen Blanchette 31:19] So maybe a more brain injury related question. You’re nearly 10 years post-injury this year. I was wondering what you would have wanted to tell yourself when you were maybe first injured or before you were injured. Any words of wisdom?

You are not alone

[Melanie 31:44] You really are not alone in what you’re experiencing. And you are not doing anything wrong for not having recovered yet. That’s the one thing that I felt all the time, that I was doing something wrong. And I felt so alone in my recovery process. I know that a lot of you are feeling this as well.

And also, if you’ve been visiting a lot of doctors and they haven’t been able to help you, it doesn’t mean that you are doing anything wrong. 

Concussion recovery is 100% possible

It just means that they don’t have access to the most recent knowledge about what is possible. Yesterday, I talked with Professor McCrea, he’s from the US as well. I interviewed him for my podcast. He’s one of the lead researchers in two very big traumatic brain injury studies in the US. 

And I asked him: what do you say if I say there’s hope for concussion recovery? And his answer was: 100%.

[Dr. Jen Blanchette 32:52] That is awesome.

[Melanie 32:55] Yeah. So that’s the one thing that I want to share. Doctors who possibly tell you that it is impossible, or that you should just rest or go home – when you feel like you leave their offices empty handed – they just don’t have access to the kind of knowledge that Professor McCrea has access to for example.

There is so much that you can do!

So is there room for improvement, there’s a lot of room for improvement, there’s so much that you can do. And that’s a good thing. That doesn’t mean that you are doing anything wrong. It just means that you need to learn how to deal with this challenge that you have been given, this road that you’ve been put up on, however you want to say it. Whatever has been happening to you. There’s really a lot that you can do.

And that’s actually also why I created Lifeyana, my website. But also the Cure My Concussion course that I put on there, in which I am sharing everything that I needed to learn, everything I needed not to do and to do to cure my concussion. 

Literally, there are so many things that you can do that I didn’t know about in the beginning as well. But also, there are so many things that doctors really don’t know to tell you about a lot of the time. So, give yourself this room to discover whatever is possible. 

And from my experience, I can share that so much is possible – even when you feel like you’re really hitting rock bottom.

About Lifeyana

[Dr. Jen Blanchette 34:35] That’s great. That’s great. So how do people reach out to you if they want to talk with you more?

[Melanie 34:41] So, they can visit Lifeyana.com. So that is L I F E Y A N A dot com and also on Instagram or Facebook, it is @thisislifeyana

[Dr. Jen Blanchette 34:54] Awesome. Awesome. Well, thank you so much for joining me. I’m sure that everyone is just going to want to reach out to you.

[Melanie 35:01] Thank you so much. I really enjoyed our conversation and you asked really wonderful questions.

[Dr. Jen Blanchette 35:07] Oh, thank you. I was honored to have you on.

[Melanie 35:10] Thank you so much.

[Dr. Jen Blanchette 35:17] Thank you for joining us today on the TBI therapist’s podcast. Please visit TBItherapist.com for more information on brain injury, concussion and mental health the information shared on today’s podcast is intended to provide information awareness and discussion on the topic. It is not clinical or medical advice. If you need mental health or medical advice, please seek a professional.

Continue reading:

You are not alone in your concussion recovery

Let me guide you toward your first steps

Thank you for subscribing!

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This