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PTSD treatment startup’s billboards speak to healthcare workers, first responders: ‘Your Trauma is Valid’

New Jersey commuters headed for Manhattan via the Lincoln Tunnel may notice a new billboard featuring a medical worker and the caption: “It’s part of my job.”

In Sacramento, California, where devastating wildfires raged out of control last year, another billboard with the same headline shows a firefighter battling a blaze, while one in Dallas features an infant with the headline, “It was a long time ago,” a reference to child abuse and neglect.

The ads are part of the “Your Trauma is Valid” campaign launched by mental health treatment startup Stella. The message? Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) isn’t just about veterans or survivors of large-scale catastrophes.

“Getting in a wreck, losing a pet, growing up through divorce—those are all traumatic experiences,” said Matthew Erley, the company’s chief growth officer. “There are so many ways that people go through and experience trauma and there are ways to heal from that.”

Stella markets an unconventional treatment for PTSD called a stellate ganglion block (SGB). It involves injecting an anesthetic into the bundle of nerves at the base of the neck to regulate the “fight-or-flight” response.

According to the company, the injection can alleviate trauma symptoms by resetting the sympathetic nervous system, which may become “stuck” in high-alert mode in people who experience trauma.

While many of the patients who currently seek out Stella’s therapy suffer from severe symptoms, the company is looking to encourage a broader swath of patients with trauma-related symptoms to seek help. But stigma is a major obstacle, along with sufferers’ tendency to downplay their own traumatic experiences, said Erley. Case in point: the healthcare worker in a pandemic-battered city who dismisses the ordeal as “part of my job.”

While those experiences may not be synonymous with PTSD in the way that combat trauma is, they can bring on similar symptoms of insomnia, panic attacks, nightmares and hypervigilance, added co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer Michael Gershenzon.

Stella based its first out-of-home awareness campaign on firsthand accounts of trauma sufferers and felt it important to “validate” traumas that are slowly becoming accepted as PTSD triggers, said Kristin “KB” Busk, head of content.  A corresponding digital campaign highlights other less recognized traumas like adoption, fertility issues, job loss and divorce.

The company tailored the billboards to reflect different types of trauma based on the region’s demographics. It chose Texas for the infant ad because it leads the country in child abuse cases and New York for the healthcare ad because that city bore the brunt of the early COVID-19 cases.

Another billboard at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, known for its military presence, shows a family hugging with the headline: “I wasn’t the one who went to war,” a nod to secondary PTSD.

The billboards went up earlier in May for Mental Health Awareness Month and will stretch into PTSD Awareness Month in June. They each include the “Your Trauma is Valid” tagline and a small Stella logo but do not mention any specific treatment.

While the SGB procedure has been used for years to treat chronic pain, its use in PTSD is relatively new. A study funded by the U.S. Army and published in JAMA in 2019 found statistically significant evidence that the injection could alleviate trauma-related symptoms. News outlets like “60 Minutes” and the The Wall Street Journal have described it as a promising breakthrough for PTSD.

Gershenzon is careful to point out that SGB is not a cure, but it can often relieve physical symptoms enough so that patients can benefit from other forms of treatment such as talk therapy.

Busk said the response to the billboards has been positive, and she also counts the campaign as a personal win because it inspired one of her relatives to pursue treatment.