Who cares for the carers? How first responders cope with PTSD

How first responders are coping with PTSD and mental health tolls that come with saving lives  Drownings, fatal car crashes, and suicides are tragic events most of us hope never to have to encounter.    But for our first responders, attending life and death situations is a daily reality. Garry Meredith knows firsthand the toll saving lives can take on the mental health of emergency service workers. Mr Meredith has spent more than three decades volunteering as a lifesaver, including time as a crew member onboard a jet boat and rescue helicopter on the far north coast of New South Wales. “My first experience was an unconscious fellow at Shelly Beach [in Ballina] floating face down in the back of the break,” he said. “In the helicopter we were going to road crashes and body recoveries … But I think what got to me the most was the suicides and shark attacks and probably resuscitation on kids. “I didn’t know much about PTSD until I was basically diagnosed with it.”High prevalence of PTSD among first responders Mr Meredith’s experience is by no means an isolated one.    A recent parliamentary inquiry into the mental health of first responders found 10 per cent of employees have probable PTSD, compared to the general population which is estimated to be 4 per cent. The Beyond Blue report cited in the inquiry also found more than a fifth of emergency service workers have high levels of psychological stress — almost three times the national average. “What we do is not a normal job,” firefighter Pat Jones wrote in his submission to the inquiry. According to figures from the National Coronial Information System in 2015, one first responder takes his or her life every six weeks.   The actual number is estimated to be much higher, given that figure does not include part-time or volunteer emergency service workers, nor those who have retired or have been medically discharged. The inquiry also found rural and regional first responders faced additional pressures not experienced by their metropolitan counterparts. These pressures include lower staffing levels, fatigue caused by shift work, community connections to patients or victims, working alone, and having less access to mental health services.  The inquiry made 14 recommendations including extensive data collection on the number of mental health injuries and suicide of first responders, as well as a national action plan on first responder mental health.Peer-to-peer support a regional solution Terry Mortimer has been a first responder for more than 40 years, with experience as a pilot and crew member onboard a rescue helicopter, as well as a lifesaver and firefighter. He said one of the hardest parts of the job was dealing with failure.   “But it’s not failure due to want, it’s failure due to the extent of their injuries.” After dealing with his own struggles and witnessing those of colleagues and friends, Mr Mortimer decided to start an informal support group for first responders in the Northern Rivers. H

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