February 2, 2021

Brain injury doesn’t need to affect a famous leader for it to impact on society

Posted in Brain Injury, Injury

A leader, known for his many wives, incapacitated. A country concerned over its future. A ruling class expressing concerns over their leader’s ability to govern.

No, I’m not talking about recent events. What I’ve described above actually harks back to an even darker time in England’s history – the 1500s – as described in a review of Tracy Borman’s latest book that I recently read. Henry VIII of England is king and stands as the supreme ruler of our nation, but during his life he’s gone from being a vigorous, generous, intelligent man to a paranoid and cruel tyrant.

What happened? Well, a study from 2016 in the Journal of Clinical Neuroscience suggests that Henry VIII suffered a series of traumatic brain injuries. The worst of these was in 1536, when he was left in a coma for two hours having been knocked off his horse whilst jousting; as someone who has represented over hundreds of clients with brain injuries, I know this type of injury is extremely serious, and likely to have life changing consequences. I doubt Henry’s doctor did. Some tell tale signs were there - records show Henry often exploded in fits of rage over trivial matters after his major head injury.

With all the discussions around political leaders, as well the impact of sporting injuries, in the news, this research sprung to mind as something that has only become more relevant. How far have we advanced in our understanding of the brain and our behaviours, how they can be damaged, and the way this impacts on people’s lives?

This is not just an issue for those at the highest level of society, though. A lack of understanding of a brain injury in anyone can have dramatic consequences for them and those around them.

The impact on individuals

Brain injury can cause all sorts of awkward social issues. Not least disinhibition, which can lead people to make tactless comments and inappropriate remarks without thinking that anything is wrong. Furthermore, a lack of a sense of humour – another common issue - can lead to someone feeling isolated.

More defined issues like memory loss and fatigue can mean people who’ve experienced a brain injury find it difficult to hold down a job that they once excelled at.

If someone were to have an undiagnosed brain injury, and was experiencing all of these issues, who’s to say how their life would change?

Thanks to research from various sources, we now know that some people’s lives change dramatically. In many cases, a traumatic brain injury (TBI) is strongly linked to homelessness. When people can’t hold down a job due to cognitive or memory issues, or find themselves isolated from those closest to them, things can spiral pretty quickly. Sometimes, they may even find themselves in prison.

The impact on families

We already know, as a result of our work for our Ahead Together Conference, that even when brain injury is diagnosed the pressure on families can be immense. Family dynamics can change, people find it difficult to maintain relationships, and sometimes, sadly, families fall apart.

Now imagine that your partner, or spouse, changed and you had no idea what the problem was? Or there was clearly something wrong with them but they weren’t able to get the right diagnosis or support? The impact on you and your immediate family would be huge.

I think it is fair to say that no one currently holds as much power as Henry VIII did during his reign. The injustices he brought about were life changing on a scale that I’m sure few people in the world could cause today. And yet, the issues detailed in the research done on his life are instructive and offer key lessons for today.

Brain injury is often a hidden disability, and one which can have a huge impact on people and those close to them, even if they aren’t responsible for running a country. It is concerning then that the issues it raises are still so difficult for people to track back to TBI, and that finding the right help – even in better times – is a real challenge. Furthermore, we have yet to work out how to balance contact sports such as rugby – contact sport being something that Henry VIII clearly enjoyed – with protection against head injury.

There are no easy answers (especially at a time when our health services are under such monumental pressure) and huge progress has obviously been made in treatment and care. However, the fact that I can even make comparisons on the social impact of brain injury between the 1500s and now shows that, as a society, we have much more to do.

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