One in 10 active emergency workers have symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and their kids are most affected.
That’s according to Dr Brian O’Toole of the Sydney Medical School's Brain & Mind Research Institute. He told Kinderling Conversation that in Australia, 3-4 million emergency services families are impacted.
"PTSD is a condition that happens to all humans when you encounter a really traumatic experience," says Brian. "It's like having a 'death' in your face and it’s a normal human reaction. When you touch a sea anemone, it goes in on itself, and that’s what happens with PTSD."
Most people with PTSD experience one or more of the following symptoms:
1. Intrusive re-experiencing of the memory
“Without wanting to, you can experience the event itself. It can be brought on by sound, smell, or blade of grass, and suddenly the parent is bursting into the room, afraid and yelling," says Brian. "When that happens, there’s dissociative behaviour or traumatic reactions and they can disrupt family life.”
2. Depression and numbing avoidance
For many PTSD sufferers, emotions are 'numbed-off'. This can make it difficult to have loving or close relationships, which obviously has a bad effect on families. Not just for the sufferer, but also children and wives can suffer due to this emotionally 'numb' behaviour.
“People who experience PTSD can be jumpy and easily startled, and very angry," says Brian. "Very often, the family members around them are 'walking on eggshells' all the time, and they are also very likely to lash out."
Listen to Dr Brian O'Toole on Kinderling Conversation:
Stigma plays a big part
While the numbers of people impacted by PTSD are increasingly high, Brian says you can have the condition and not have it affect your life.
“You can have emotional reactions in a mild way. If it doesn’t interfere with your life and career, you can live with it and it doesn't get in your way," says Brian. "That can happen in about 50 percent of cases, and it can also totally remit in other cases."
However, the stigma attached to the symptoms can be detrimental to the person reaching out for help. In particular industries, such as the armed forces, fire department, ambulance service and police, it can hold you back from achieving your career goals.
“In these emergency services there is a stigma attached, and it can be career-limiting. The problem with not speaking out, though, is that one day it will immobilise you and you can’t do what you’ve always done,” says Brian.
The impact on family life can be huge
How victims decide to manage their symptoms has the biggest impact on their kids.
"They are very often not available emotionally for their kids, and that has a huge effect on a child’s attachment to the parent, because it becomes impaired,” says Brian.
“The emotional environment of the household is sub-optimal. When a child is raised in this environment, they are experiencing an angry, remote, anxious and depressed parent and they can’t get through to them.”
How easily is PTSD treated?
Not easily. In fact, it's notoriously hard to treat.
“Some people suggest it’s treatment-resistant. Cognitive behaviour therapy is used with some effect, but the harder symptoms to shift are the re-experiencing symptoms. And that's because the brain is too good, it won’t let you forget the traumatic memory,” says Brian.
Antidepressants are the frontline treatment but that only treats the depression symptoms, and does little for other symptoms such as hyper-vigilance or anger.
“Often the victim becomes a real stickler for rules, and they will not cope without the rules being observed in the family - and this can be an enormous stressor for the kids,” says Brian.
Compassion is the most important tool for healing family life, and Brian recommends the following tips:
1. Hold them and be gentle
Be understanding that the parent with PTSD can't really help their behaviour. "They may have chosen this profession, but they didn’t choose this to happen," says Brian.
2. Have as much compassion as you possibly can
It's easy to be short-tempered when you're living with someone and constantly walking on eggshells. "Try to activate your generosity of spirit, you’ve got to grin and bear it," says Brian.
3. Talk, talk, talk
“Being able to talk about what is happening for them is very helpful,” says Brian. “It really helps them get everything out of their heads.”
4. Recognise others in the same boat
"Support and commonality of experience is very healing. Help your partner seek out men’s sheds or support groups for people in the same circumstances,” says Brian.
There's no doubt that life can be complicated and hard for families with a parent experiencing PTSD, so it's important to reach out and get support for yourself too.
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