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Gayle McNaught
Black Dog Institute
0401 625 905

Emergency service workers exposed to traumatic events are set to benefit from the world’s first guidelines to help diagnose and treat post-traumatic stress disorder.

The NSW Minister for Mental Health, Pru Goward, and Minister Emergency Services, David Elliott, joined industry leaders to launch the Black Dog Institute guidelines today.

Developed by nine leading Australian clinicians and researchers, including three UNSW experts, the national guidelines provide evidenced-based protocols for identifying and managing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The guidelines also address common and related disorders such as depression, anxiety and substance use.

“Given the debt that society owes these workers, it is imperative that we ensure that those who do become unwell as a result of their emergency service work get the best possible treatment."

UNSW Scientia Professor Helen Christensen, Director & Chief Scientist of the Black Dog Institute, said 10% of Australia’s 80,000 emergency service workers had experienced the debilitating symptoms of PTSD due to their frequent exposure to potentially traumatic experiences.

“Mental illness is a significant cause of sickness absence in this group, and without appropriate and timely intervention, it can result in long-term disability and even suicide,” Professor Christensen said.

“We are proud to have led this world-class consortium of experts to develop the first clear and comprehensive guidelines for health professionals caring for emergency service staff.”

PTSD describes a severe and persistent mental health impairment following exposure to a single or multiple traumatic events. Symptoms typically involve mentally re-experiencing trauma, avoidance of triggering situations, low mood; and arousal symptoms such including insomnia and irritability.

Lead author of the guidelines and UNSW psychiatrist Dr Sam Harvey, based at the Black Dog Institute, said PTSD can occur in anyone exposed to trauma and managing it in emergency service workers is especially challenging.

“Emergency workers fill a hugely important role in our society, but unfortunately the nature of their job means they are regularly exposed to different types of trauma, from witnessing distressing events to having their own lives in significant danger," Dr Harvey said.

“The cumulative nature of their trauma exposure, and the different coping mechanisms emergency workers use, mean PTSD often presents in atypical ways and can be difficult to identify and differentiate from other mental illnesses, especially for clinicians who are not specialists in the field. These problems can be compounded by the stigma associated with mental illness, meaning some emergency service workers may be reluctant to come forward and ask for help."

Dr Harvey said the new guidelines outline evidence-based treatments that can be used to treat emergency workers with PTSD, meaning a diagnosis of PTSD doesn’t have to mean the end of someone’s working career.

“Given the debt that society owes these workers, it is imperative that we ensure that those who do become unwell as a result of their emergency service work get the best possible treatment; we hope these guidelines will help this occur,” he said.

The guidelines have been officially endorsed by the Royal Australian and NZ College of Psychiatrists and were funded by Employers Mutual.