What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Because of their work, Police Officers are regularly exposed to traumatic events and experiences.

Traumatic events are generally classed as exposure to threatened or actual death or serious injury to oneself or other people. The strong reaction people can have to traumatic experiences is referred to as traumatic stress and is a normal response to what can be considered an abnormal situation. Most often, the symptoms of traumatic stress decrease and eventually subside over time. Exposure to a traumatic event does not mean a person will develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)1.

However, for some people, their symptoms of distress do not subside and might actually increase in intensity over the weeks and months following their exposure to a traumatic event. If this occurs, the person might be experiencing PTSD. PTSD is a “severe and persistent stress reaction after exposure to a traumatic event”1. For a diagnosis of PTSD, a person will generally have experienced PTSD symptoms for approximately four weeks or longer following exposure to a traumatic event and their symptoms will likely have caused them significant distress or difficulty in various aspects of life such as in social or occupational arenas1. The development of PTSD relating to your work as a Police Officer could be categorised as a workplace injury. Please discuss with your GP.

PTSD can develop following exposure to a single, multiple, or repeated traumatic events. It is not uncommon for Police to develop symptomology consistent with PTSD over time as they will likely be exposed to numerous traumatic events over the course of their career. With the gradual build up of PTSD symptoms over their career, Police Officers can experience the sudden on-set of PTSD in an acute form following just one more traumatic event. Alternatively, the on-set of PTSD might not occur for months or even years following exposure to a traumatic event – This is referred to as delayed-onset PTSD1.

PTSD is regularly experienced along side other conditions and is rarely experienced as a condition on its own. In Australia, over 80% of people who are diagnosed with PTSD, are also diagnosed with comorbid conditions such as depression, anxiety, and alcohol abuse and other drugs use1. It is estimated that 1.3% of the general population will experience PTSD, whereas 10% of all emergency service workers, and up to 20% of Police Officers will experience PTSD during their careers23. A key difference between those in the general public and Police Officers who experience PTSD is that those in the general public will likely feel fear and horror towards their traumatic experiences whereas Police Officers often experience guilt and anger1.

Although some people develop PTSD following exposure to a traumatic event, others develop symptoms similar to PTSD but are not severe enough to meet a diagnosis of PTSD. This is referred to as sub-syndromal PTSD. Sub-syndromal PTSD symptoms can be experienced as Acute Stress Disorder, Depression, suicidal ideation, increased anger and hostility, and increased levels of absence from the workplace. Sub-syndromal symptoms, if left unaddressed, can be serious and lead to the development of a full PTSD presentation. Studies have shown that early intervention can assist in recovery from sub-syndromal PTSD and prevent people from developing PTSD14.

There are generally four major clusters of symptoms relating to PTSD:

Re-experiencing Symptoms – intrusive memories, flashbacks, vivid nightmares, confusion, anxiety and distress when reminded of traumatic events145.

Avoidance Symptoms – Avoiding people, places, crowds, thoughts, sights, sounds, smells and feelings relating to traumatic events. Experiences in the absence of trauma, that induce memories of traumatic events and cause an exacerbation of symptoms, are referred to as triggers846.

Negative thoughts and mood associated with traumatic events – difficulty in remembering important details about traumatic events, memory problems in general, feeling numb, guilt, withdrawal, relationship difficulties, and cynicism146.

Arousal Symptoms – hypervigilance (ie, always on the lookout for danger), fight or flight (eg, racing heart beat, perspiration) reactions, muscle tension, becoming easily startled, difficulty sleeping, concentration difficulties, anger, irritability, engaging in risky behavior, and somatic symptoms such as chronic pain145.

The development of PTSD might mean the end of their career for some Police Officers, whilst others might need to take time away from the workplace to recover and receive the treatment they need. Others might remain at work whilst they seek help for PTSD. Despite each person’s path, it is important to know that PTSD is treatable and with the right assistance it is possible to return to pre-injury functioning. However, be mindful that recovery usually takes time. If you feel as though you, a workmate, or someone you care about might be struggling with PTSD, seek help immediately as early intervention can be important to recovery7. PTSD is a severe and persistent mental health condition that will not go away on its own or by sheer act of will1.

1 Harvey, S. B., Devilly, G., Forbes, D., Glozier, N., McFarlane, A., Phillips, J., Sim, M., Steel, Z., & Bryant, R. (2015). Expert guidelines: Diagnosis and treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder in emergency service workers [Pamphlet]. N.P: Expert Group on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Emergency Service Workers.

2 Skeffington, P. (2016, August 2). One in five police officers are at risk of PTSD – Here’s how we need to respond. Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/one-in-five-police-officers-are-at-risk-of-ptsd-heres-how-we-need-to-respond-63272

3 Berger, W., Coutinho, E. S., Figueira, I, et al. (2012). Rescuers at risk: A systematic review and meta-regression analysis of the worldwide current prevalence and correlates of PTSD in rescue workers. Social Psychiatry, 47, 1001- 1011.

4 Phoenix Australia. (2016, September 18). Recovery: Helping Others. Retrieved from http://phoenixaustralia.org/recovery/helping-others/

5 HelpGuide.org. (2016, September 18). How to help someone with PTSD. Retrieved from http://www.helpguide.org/articles/ptsd-trauma/ptsd-in-the-family.htm

6 U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2016, September 18). Helping a family member who has PTSD. Retrieved from http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/family/helping-family-member.asp

7 McGorry, P. D. (2008). Is early intervention in the major psychiatric disorders justified? Yes. BMJ, 337.



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