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PTSD: The hidden cost of working in the emergency services

PTSD: The hidden cost of working in the emergency services
May 23, 2016 Liam Hiller
Emergency Services

Post traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD as it is more commonly known, is a major problem among members of the emergency services in Australia. The sheer amount of traumatic scenes and events that these workers come across on the job every single day is staggering. Whether it be seeing dead bodies, car crashes, fires or, as is the case with the police force and fire brigade, the relentless stress of putting your life in danger on a day-to-day basis, these types of events have the ability to leave a lasting mark on a person, causing anxiety, tearfulness, stress and flashbacks, to name just a few of the symptoms.

This problem has, for some time now, been ignored by the media and the general public and indeed the emergency services themselves. Up until 2015 there were absolutely no guidelines in place to show the services how to deal with workers suffering from PTSD. Instead people were told to “take deep breaths”, “choose what side of the fence they are on” or simply “get on with it” by their superiors. This, along with the ridiculous but lasting stigma around mental illness, naturally made it difficult for anyone to come forward and speak about their problems for fear of bullying or even losing their job. 

It was Doctor Sam Harvey from the University of New South Wales and the Black Dog Institute that eventually fought to bring forward guidelines that would not only try to help those with PTSD but would also legitimise the problem and make it easier for those suffering from the horrible disorder to speak about their issues. Harvey revealed the true scale of the problem when he stated that “About 10 percent of current emergency service workers have PTSD, and we suspect the rate is even higher if you consider retired emergency service workers.”

This is, of course, a huge number of officers, medics and firefighters and they are all in need of help in one way or another. Harvey’s latest guidelines look to help spot and reduce symptoms and provide the option of professional help for those suffering. This definitely seems like a step in the right direction and it has come at the right time, only months before the Australian government decided to legalise medical marijuana across the country, which is increasingly being used by those who suffer from PTSD around the world. So will cannabis be used in Australia to help those suffering from PTSD?

The chances are the herb may be prescribed to sufferers as a way of controlling their symptoms. Cannabis has been found to remove associations with painful memories, this could help patients to alleviate some of their symptoms that are triggered by certain smells or sounds. Naturally this could, in turn, help patients suffering from a range of PTSD’s symptoms including insomnia, irritability or severe anxiety. One thing that must be recognised however is the fact that cannabis is not actually able to cure PTSD. Doing this is much more complex and can only be accomplished by working through the trauma that the individual experienced, most likely with a psychiatrist.

So why would doctors in Australia choose to prescribe cannabis rather than one of the medicines that they are currently giving to PTSD patients to relieve their symptoms? The main reason that many doctors would likely choose to do this has a lot to do with the side effects of the drug. Of course cannabis can decrease motivation, make one have a dry mouth and cause reddening around the eyes, however these side effects are rather menial when compared to the effects of the currently prescribed anti-depressants. These can include rashes, drowsiness, insomnia and acute stomach pains. Avoiding such side effects is a clear benefit of choosing cannabis over the more popularly prescribed drugs.

One short term problem that could arise for those suffering from PTSD is that cannabis has not actually be officially tested in medical trials for treating the disorder. It is more than likely that with the increased use of medical marijuana around the world, it will not be long before this happens, but for the moment doctors may not be officially allowed to prescribe it to their PTSD patients. 

This could leave emergency service workers that have been subjected to severe trauma throughout their careers in a position where they have to wait a little longer before they can find out if cannabis can help them on their route to recovery. One thing is for certain though, with the introduction of proper guidelines on how to take care of workers with PTSD, and hopefully an improving attitude towards the problem by senior emergency workers and the media, those that are currently struggling with the condition should now be better equipped, and better supported, in their struggle to move away from the past and think about the future.

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