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Developing a better way to find and treat PTSD in first responders

flickr user The National Guard

When we talk about post-traumatic stress disorder, the conversation usually focuses on our members of the military, both active-duty and veterans.

But that misses a large group of men and women who struggle with PTSD: our first responders.

Our police officers, firefighters, and paramedics can experience things on the job that most of us could never imagine, and it can take a toll.

The Wayne State University Physician Group’s Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Neurosciences and the Department of Family Medicine and Public Health Sciences are working with the police and fire departments of the city of Sterling Heights to develop an effective way to identify and treat PTSD in first responders.

According to Dr. David Rosenberg, there’s an erroneous public perception that first responders are capable of handling anything, and we tend to forget that they’re just as susceptible to trauma as any of us.

“The data shows that as many as 40% of firefighters and police officers will in fact suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder at some point during their career,” Rosenberg says.

Sterling Heights Fire Chief Chris Martin tells us that although they’re aware that first responders are susceptible to PTSD, there aren’t many policies in place to properly address the problem.

“We don’t really know how to handle it,” Martin says. “What do we say to the employee? Hey, can you work the rest of the shift? Do you want to go home? Not everybody’s the same, and sometimes we might be doing the wrong things thinking we’re doing the right things.”

Rosenberg tells us their goal is to develop a new and reliable way to identify and treat PTSD in first responders while battling the stigma that accompanies the disorder.

“We don’t want to create diagnoses, we don’t want to overdiagnose, but … we want to treat problems above the neck and below the neck the same, and we don’t want the stigma to get in the way,” Rosenberg says.

Rosenberg says they’re looking to perform annual mental health evaluations, “the same way you might have an annual physical screening.”

The idea is that by detecting signs of PTSD early, it can more easily be treated or even prevented, according to Rosenberg.

Martin hopes to see a fundamental change in the way first responders look at themselves and the invincible macho-man stigma.

“I think people idolize those guys that are macho and tough, and … the image isn’t one of a guy who will come back and open up about how that run affected him,” Martin says. “So I’m hoping we can change the young guys as they come in so that when they’re in my position years from now it’s commonplace that they talk about it and they ask for help when they need it.”

– Ryan Grimes, Stateside

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