07 May First Responders at Risk for PTSD, Alcohol Problems
When tragedy strikes, Americans depend upon a cadre of men and women trained to respond quickly and effectively. Our protective services such as firefighters, EMS, police and others react swiftly when tragedy occurs. However, this means that these men and women often come face to face with sights and experiences that test the mettle of human emotion. For those new to such careers, the regular exposure to high degrees of trauma can trigger mood disorders and alcohol misuse.
The traumas that prove most damaging to the psyche of first responders include seeing extensive injury or death, unexpectedly coming upon a dead body and being dispatched to an accident scene in which one or more of the victims is close to them. Although these professions do not pose a greater threat of mental illness overall, the repeated exposure to intense suffering and violence for those new to the career can lead to an increased risk of mood disorder or alcohol misuse.
Even veteran first-responders are not immune to the stress posed by a traumatic event. As many as seven police officers at a time–more than 16 percent of the police force in Newtown, Conn.—suffered symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after the Dec. 14 mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
First responders often experience acute stress in the immediate aftermath of an event. Sometimes this stress continues. According to the New York Times, at least one officer from the Newtown police force has been unable to return to work since the shootings, and said he needed medication to sleep.
Post-traumatic stress disorder may be present if the signs of stress are continuing a month or more after the experience. Co-workers and supervisors can identify signs of acute stress or PTSD by looking for the following symptoms:
1. The person suddenly develops a new physical complaint
2. The person experiences frightening dreams related to the trauma
3. The person becomes anxious when the trauma is mentioned or discussed
4. The person avoids anything connected to the trauma
First responders who are struggling can be helped with early intervention and education in coping skills. Since the risk for mood disorder and alcohol misuse decrease over time, it may be helpful to draw upon the experience of veteran responders to explore how seasoned professionals cope with continual exposure to human depravity and suffering.
It is important to point out that studies have been done that compare the risk of mental illness among protective service personnel and people in other career paths and found no measurable difference–except among those still relatively new to a first-response occupation. Since medical science is still learning the best methods for dealing with reactions to trauma, it could be beneficial for skilled peers to share how they manage to cope.
Those engaged in protective services are trained to handle extreme situations. Often these careers are chosen by people with innate resilience. Nevertheless, those newest to these fields will benefit from peer counseling and access to mental health counseling.
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