ACAP explores the link between PTSD and First Responders

Posted by ACAP on 24 February 2020

More than 300 ACAP alumni, students and the public discovered the mental health impact of being a First Responder.


Presenters Dr Tony McHugh, Senior Fellow in the Department of Psychiatry at Melbourne University,  Senior Detective Grant Keighley from Victoria Police and Senior Station Officer and Peer Support Coordinator Scott D'Arcy with the Metropolitan Fire Brigade discussed the complexity of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and why First Responders are identified as an at-risk group for the disorder.

How people respond to trauma

It is well established in research that the risk of being traumatised increases with increased exposure to Potential Traumatising Events (PTEs). Multiple studies have shown that the general public typically experience three PTE’s across their lifetime - for example, to such events as witnessing someone being badly injured or killed or being involved in life-threatening road or work place accidents.

However, police and other First Responders have a PTE exposure incidence that is roughly double that of the community. Additionally, they are occupationally repeatedly exposed to danger, emergencies, bushfires, war, terrorist incidents, natural disasters and loss of life. This exposes them to a high risk of developing trauma-related mental health conditions, such as PTSD.

PTSD and First Responders

Australian studies, like their international counterparts, have shown that First Responders have elevated PTSD rates, with police rates being approximately double those of the general community at 10 to 12%.

Dr Tony McHugh, a prominent theorist, researcher and PTSD treating psychologist-practitioner, informed those in attendance that “among Police and other First Responders, this is a reflection of the frequency and intensity of exposure.” He stated that “there’s a dose effect, the more exposure, the greater likelihood that a person will develop some traumatic reactions.” He also emphasised the wide variety of traumatic, stressful and challenging events to which police are exposed.

He stressed the causal relationship between anger and PTSD in First Responders. He emphasised: “First Responder PTSD is often primarily angry in nature. This is very common in Police who are affected by PTSD, not just because of what they have experienced but because of how they are treated in the workplace after events.”

Effective treatment

Dr McHugh highlighted the effectiveness of prolonged exposure when treating PTSD, especially where significant anxiety is involved. Prolonged exposure is a treatment procedure which involves reprocessing of traumatic memories and gradually and safely confronting reminders of the trauma.

Dr McHugh advised: “The more people try to avoid cues associated with traumatic and stressful experiences, the more they are drawn to them. It’s a paradox, an ironic process, in that individuals are trying not to experience those very things, but because of this attempted avoidance, they experience them more.”

“Prolonged Exposure thus helps PTSD sufferers to overcome the fear of their memories and works through extinguishing those memories and associated reactions gradually and safely.” He also added that effective treatment for PTSD where anger is prominent must include other treatment techniques, especially cognitive therapy, distancing and Self-Instruction Training.

Senior Detective Keighley provided a personal insight into PTSD as a First Responder. He said that while suffering with PTSD, he felt as though he “always had a feeling that something bad was going to happen.”

Mr Keighley said the means to ensuring and maintaining normality in his life are having a sleep routine, moderating alcohol consumption, eating well, keeping fit and breaking the cycle of negative thoughts.

Moving forward in a proactive way

Senior Station Officer D’Arcy spoke about a major shift in mental health literature and education within the Metropolitan Fire Brigade. He said: “The culture has started to change, we are seeing good improvements about help-seeking. We are seeing a lot of firefighters wanting to come forward to talk about mental health, wanting to engage with psychologists and feeling open enough to sit around the fire station and say, ‘I went to see the psychologist today.”

Mr D’Arcy is also the Co-chair of the Mental Health App developed by firefighters, Let Me Know (LMK). He advised that the LMK app was designed by firefighters to provide a vital link between front line personnel and their organisation’s mental health support services.

LMK gives frontline personnel the ability to track their mental health over time against a well-defined mental health continuum. When trigger points are identified a notification is sent to the peer programme to engage with the at-risk individual, acting as a non-verbal cue for those needing help.

The app also includes support services, mood and mental health management information as well as meditation, diet, and exercise programs.

More information:

  • For information on events run by ACAP Industry and Alumni visit our website or Eventbrite.
  • Find out more information on the Let Me Know app here.