PTSD in Emergency Service Workers

PTSD in Emergency Service Workers

We all know that at the end of the telephone is someone we can rely on to rush to our side and help us in our time of need. Whether we’ve broken a bone and need a paramedic, are witnessing a robbery and need the police, have an oven fire raging through our kitchen and require a fire fighter, or can see a dinghy with a child in it getting swept out to sea and need a coast guard, there’s always someone there to help.

However, what isn’t considered quite so often at the dial of 999 is the impact seeing such traumatic events can have on those responding. While it is their job and certainly what they set themselves up for doing in life, no amount of money can change the fact they will experience emotional (and sometimes physical) trauma in their line of work. From seeing a young baby die in a car accident or not being able to save the life of a mum with young children, trying to rescue someone from drowning only to realise it’s too late, or being attacked by an armed burglar, there’s some parts that aren’t included in the emergency services job description.

PTSD in emergency workers

As the mental health charity Mind reports, one in four emergency ‘blue light’ workers have thought about ending their life. That’s 27% of an online poll of 1,600 staff and volunteers, who found they weren’t being adequately supported and were experiencing stress and poor mental health. In addition to this, nearly two-thirds (a whopping 63%) had considered leaving their job or voluntary position as a direct result of poor mental health or stress.

The reality is, emergency workers are at high-risk of developing PTSD, otherwise known as post-traumatic stress disorder. Those who experience PTSD have often experienced some kind of life-changing trauma, either where their life has been threatened or they have witnessed someone’s life in danger. It can happen after illnesses, accidents, natural disasters, death, plus many other scenarios. What is often forgotten is that emergency workers are often encountering each of these stressful situations numerous times within their everyday line of work, without any real advance warning of what they’re headed into.

Why do emergency workers develop PTSD?

Adrenaline starts pumping, blue lights flashing, sirens screaming and their brain whirrs into action as they go through everything they need to do to save someone’s life. Sometimes they make a life-changing difference. Other times there’s nothing they can do. It becomes personal; could they have done more? What if they had driven quicker? Did they take the right steps?

There’s a level of guilt sometimes too. It’s hard to switch off from witnessing something so traumatic – stepping into the worst possible moment in someone’s life – and then leaving again, to act as though nothing has happened. They have little time to pause and reflect before moving onto the next job, which could be something completely opposite, like a cat stuck up a tree or an elderly person who isn’t able to stand up.

How does PTSD manifest itself

From sleepless nights to palpitations, cold sweats to nightmares, emotional detachment to nausea, hyper-vigilance to panic attacks; there’s many ways in which post-traumatic stress disorder can manifest itself. Sometimes it isn’t immediate, and can appear after many years. Sometimes it isn’t obvious and requires a conversation with a trained professional to identify the root cause of the problem.

Early interventions in the workplace

There are ways in which emergency workers can be helped. From their employers being aware of the high level of stress that they are under, to being offered counselling after particularly traumatic cases, being encouraged to talk out more, to being allowed to have a break from work after a big trauma, there’s plenty that can be done to help prevent the onset of PTSD.

Ultimately, it is about reducing the stigma and showing that there is no shame. It is a natural human reaction and no matter how brave or strong or invincible they feel, no one is exempt from PTSD. Yes, an emergency worker may have signed up for the job but it doesn’t mean they aren’t human. They feel emotions just like everyone else. For staff, being aware of their own feelings and of their colleagues means they can be conscious of what to look out for, and can help to support those around them too.


Treatments for PTSD

It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

Traumatic events can be very difficult to come to terms with, but confronting and understanding your feelings and seeking professional help is often the only way of effectively treating PTSD. You can find out more in the links below, or here.


You’ll find up-to-date news, research and information here along with some great tips to ease your PTSD in our blog.

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