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Trauma on the job: No shame in asking for help

Silhouette of fire-fighter at dusk

by Donna Ferguson, Psychologist with the WSIB Psychological Trauma Program

Military suicides and stories of police or paramedics suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have increasingly become front-page news.

But behind the headlines, the suffering of those who come home from war zones or have treated a young child injured in a car accident only to have them die, is seen as taboo.

Despite their tough professional exteriors, these individuals carry scars which cannot be seen.

While the awareness of PTSD has increased, seeking treatment is not often an easy path for those who wrestle with recurring nightmares, avoidance and overall anxiety as a result of the trauma they faced on the job.

And one of the greatest barriers to treatment is shame.

Stigma can stand in the way of getting treatment, especially for those who work as soldiers, police officers or fire fighters. They are supposed to be strong, the ones we all lean on when we need support but what happens when they get hurt, when they experience trauma in the line of duty?

Often, these strong women or tough guys are told to simply suck it up, stick it out and just get over it. They don’t come forward for help because their work culture often doesn’t give them permission to say, “I need help.”

But that stigma and not getting treatment can lead to individuals not sleeping well and cause them to struggle with anxiety and depression.

One client who works on the police force told me his experience with trauma and struggle with the symptoms of PTSD have had a real impact on his job. Because this police officer had become hyper-vigilant as a reaction to the trauma he experienced, he was accused of calling for back-up too soon and it had a negative impact on his relationships with his colleagues – the very people he should have been able to lean on.

Eventually he had to move to another precinct. And then there’s the personal toll it takes on marriages because often people try to cope on their own and hide it from their spouses.

And it is that fear of admitting you are weak, that you need help that causes additional suffering. So some may self-medicate with drugs or alcohol to cope which only compounds the original problem.

You only have to look at the number of suicides in the military to see the potential tragic outcome of not getting treatment.

So for those of us on the front lines of treating PTSD, our priority is to help our patients see there is no shame in asking for help.

It’s only a shame if they don’t receive treatment they so desperately need.

*Photo: Heather Paul on Flickr

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