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What is PTSD?

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health diagnosis that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, combat, a natural disaster, people dying, or sexual assault.  For first responders, they are likely exposed to potentially traumatic events (PTE’s) on a much more frequent basis due to the nature of their work. It is normal to have upsetting memories, feel on edge, or have trouble sleeping after these types of events. At first, it may be hard to do normal daily activities, like go to work, go to school, or spend time with people you care about. But, most people start to feel better after a few weeks or months. If more than a few months pass and you’re still having symptoms, you may have PTSD. For some people, PTSD symptoms may start later on, or they may come and go over time.

What factors affect who develops PTSD?

PTSD can happen to anyone and is not a sign of weakness. A number of factors can increase the chance that someone will have PTSD, many of which are not under that person’s control. For example, having a very intense or long-lasting traumatic event, or getting injured during the event can make it more likely that a person will develop PTSD. PTSD is also more common after certain types of trauma, like combat and sexual assault. Personal factors such as previous traumatic exposure, age, and gender, can affect whether or not a person will develop PTSD. What happens after the traumatic event(s) is also important. Stress can make PTSD more likely, while social support can make it less likely.

What are the symptoms of PTSD?

PTSD symptoms usually start soon after the traumatic event, but they may not appear until months or years later. They also may come and go over many years. If the symptoms last longer than four weeks, cause you great distress, or interfere with your work or home life, you may have PTSD.  It is important to note that PTSD must be diagnosed by a licensed therapist, psychologist, or physician. There are many treatments available, but the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) denotes that a combination of psychiatric medication and counseling yield the best results.  However, each individual case differs, and individuals diagnosed with PTSD should follow the treatment recommendations set by their provider(s). The following symptoms may indicate the diagnosis of PTSD.
  1. Reliving the event (also called re-experiencing symptoms). You may have bad memories or nightmares. You even may feel like you’re going through the event again. This is called a flashback.
  2. Avoiding situations that remind you of the event. You may try to avoid situations or people that trigger memories of the traumatic event. You may even avoid talking or thinking about the event.
  3. Having more negative beliefs and feelings. The way you think about yourself and others may change because of the trauma. You may feel guilt or shame. Or, you may not be interested in activities you used to enjoy. You may feel that the world is dangerous and you can’t trust anyone. You might be numb, or find it hard to feel happy.
  4. Feeling keyed up (also called hyperarousal). You may be jittery, or always alert and on the lookout for danger. Or, you may have trouble concentrating or sleeping. You might suddenly get angry or irritable, startle easily, or act in unhealthy ways ( smoking, using drugs and alcohol, or driving recklessly).
Due to the nature of their work, first responders may experience some of these symptoms without having full criteria for PTSD.  That reason is one of many as to why it is best quality service delivery for individuals to meet with a licensed provider specialized in diagnosing PTSD before presuming they have this diagnosis.  Additionally, meeting with a licensed provider will aid in obtaining helpful resources and strategies for healing in a way that is best tailored for each individual person.  If you are concerned that you or someone you care about may have PTSD, the following link to the US Department of Veteran Affairs offers a free PTSD screening that helps to identify information that should be provided to a licensed mental health professional:

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