ELEANOR HALL: Psychiatrists estimate that at least 8,000 emergency services workers across Australia are living with post-traumatic stress disorder with very little support.
But today, clinicians and researchers have launched a set of national guidelines aimed at diagnosing and treating PTSD in frontline emergency workers.
As Thomas Oriti reports.
THOMAS ORITI: For emergency workers across Australia, upholding the law and keeping the community safe can come at a cost.
And there’s a growing realisation that post-traumatic stress disorder – or PTSD – is affecting thousands of frontline staff.
Zachary Steel is the professorial chair of Trauma and Mental Health at the St John of God psychiatric hospital in New South Wales.
ZACHARY STEEL: It’s definitely a high risk population that’s regularly exposed to life threatening and horrific events. And we find that as the number of events increase, the risk of PTSD increases. And ultimately there’s no immunity to PTSD, it can bring down most professional hardy individuals. In fact it often brings down the people that really out themselves on the front line.
THOMAS ORITI: Professor Steel is one of nine specialists who have released the first national set of guidelines to identify and manage PTSD among emergency workers.
ZACHARY STEEL: Both militarily and emergency service workers are quite a unique population; they’re very different to civilians, a lot of the existing guidelines are about PTSD in general. But the experience of repeated regular exposure really requires a different approach and that’s what we try to highlight here.
THOMAS ORITI: Psychiatrist Dr Sam Harvey from the mental health awareness group the Black Dog Institute is the lead author of the guidelines.
He’s calling them a “world first”.
SAM HARVEY: Where these are different from anything before is that they are specifically focused on emergency workers in terms of how you go about the sometimes complicated task of picking apart a diagnosis like this from an emergency worker and how do you do treatment.
THOMAS ORITI: There are 54 guidelines in total.
They recognise the different impacts of PTSD, and how to correctly diagnose a patient and plan their treatment.
Methods of therapy are also included, including when to conduct support sessions and how.
Associate professor Mal Hopwood is the president of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists.
MAL HOPWOOD: We first talked about disorders like PTSD in war veterans, but we’ve increasingly come to recognise that it is an important issue in emergency service workers and as soon as you talk to some of them you realise just how much trauma they confront as part of their everyday working life.
So these guidelines are really important addition to our approach to this whole problem.
THOMAS ORITI: The guidelines were launched at the New South Wales Parliament this morning.
A spokesman for the state’s Ambulance Service has told The World Today that the service was closely involved in the drafting of them.
But while he supports the guidelines, he was quick to point out that robust support mechanisms were already in place to support staff with PTSD.
It’s a similar sentiment from New South Wales Police, with a spokeswoman saying the Force has already recognised many of the key points.
But Scott Weber from the state’s Police Association says more can be done, particularly for patients who have resigned.
SCOTT WEBER: Sometimes those people that have retired, they go into a shell and they’re very hard to contact and more needs to be done by organisations. And, that is why the Government is actually given extra money to Police Legacy, to make sure that we look after those retired police officers aren’t forgotten.
THOMAS ORITI: Outside New South Wales, Victoria Police says that preparations are underway for its own mental health review, which will examine the support provided for current and former employees.
A spokesman says that’s in addition to an internal review process aimed at ensuring the safety and well-being of staff.
In the meantime, the Black Dog Institute hopes the guidelines will be adopted nationally.
A view that’s echoed by the New South Wales Mental Health Minister Pru Goward.
PRU GOWARD: We would be very happy if they were adopted by other states and other countries. It’s the first time really that the particular needs of emergency workers, because of the nature of the work that they do, the experience that they have, the terrible things they see and are part of, it’s the first time it’s being recognised that we need specific interventions to support those people.
ELEANOR HALL: That’s the New South Wales Mental Health Minister, Pru Goward, ending that report from Thomas Oriti.
This article first appeared on ‘The World Today’ on 28 October 2015.