In what has been hailed a "world-first", a group of Australian clinicians and researchers have developed national guidelines for the treatment and diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder in frontline emergency workers. At least 8,000 police, fire and ambulance officers are believed to be living with post-traumatic stress disorder — or PTSD, as it's commonly known.
The guidelines' lead author, Doctor Sam Harvey from University of New South Wales and the Black Dog Institute, said the nature of work in the emergency services meant people were repeatedly exposed to traumatic events.
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"Sometimes that can be a trauma directed at them, such as in a case where a police officer is attacked by someone," he said.
"But other times — and perhaps more common— it is just them witnessing a traumatic event.
"They often also suffer depression, anxiety disorders and develop substance abuse problems." Doctor Harvey said increased rates of suicide were seen among emergency workers who developed PTSD.
The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists has independently reviewed and endorsed the new national guidelines. Doctor Harvey said the new guidelines were tailored to emergency workers, to recognise the pattern of symptoms and make an early diagnosis.
The guidelines also explore how to treat PTSD among emergency workers, how to reduce the symptoms and the best ways to ensure the person can be transitioned back to work.
Doctor Harvey said it was difficult for some emergency workers to ask for help because of the stigma associated with mental illness and concerns about the impact on their career.
"It is complicated because the reality is that if they have suffered from PTSD, you often have to remove them from the frontline to be able to treat them.
"But I think having these guidelines will at least allow these people to be on the pathway to the best evidence-based treatment early on... and we know that helps outcomes and we know these treatments are effective with emergency workers."
Re-living trauma: Constant recurring and unwanted memories in the form of vivid images or nightmares, causing sweating or panic
Being overly alert or wound up: Causes sleeping difficulties, irritability and lack of concentration
Avoiding reminders of the event: Deliberating avoiding places, activities, people or thoughts associated with traumatic event
Feeling emotionally numb: Losing interest in day-to-day activities, feeling cut off and detached from friends and family