Mental health

Dents in the Soul DVD cover

According to the Australian Centre for Post Traumatic Mental Health, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and the closely associated condition of Acute Stress Disorder (ASD), is a psychological reaction that develops in some people following the experience of traumatic events such as a major disaster, war, sexual or physical assault, motor vehicle accidents, and torture. It is a serious mental disorder that can affect anyone after exposure to a traumatic event.

What is a traumatic event?

What constitutes a ‘trauma’ is different for everyone. However, there are a number of events that have the potential to cause significant distress.

These include but are not limited to:

• threat of death
• serious injury
• viewing or handling of dead bodies
• death or serious injury of a close friend, colleague or family member
• exposure to a potentially contagious disease or toxic agent
• witnessing human misery or degradation on a large scale
• an action or inaction resulting in the serious injury or death of others.

Do traumatic events always impact negatively on people?

Certainly, traumatic events, by their very nature, can change people permanently - but quite often these changes are positive, causing people to re-assess their lives, their relationships and their beliefs in valuable and meaningful ways. People can gain insight into their character and their ability to cope and to utilise their support resources.

How often does it occur?

Unfortunately, being exposed to a traumatic event is not an uncommon experience, and not solely the province of the military. Surveys in Australia and overseas suggest that 50-65 percent of people in the civilian community report at least one traumatic event in their lives. This figure would obviously be much higher for emergency services personnel such as Police, Fire Fighters, Ambulance Officers and Paramedics. The current data suggest that less that two percent of Australian soldiers have developed PTSD following operational deployments, though figures from the US military indicate higher rates of up to 10 percent.

Of the 30,325 current full-time Army members it is estimated that that approximately 18,800 have had operational service and therefore two percent or about 375 will have developed PTSD. Further detail can be found in the ADF Mental Health Prevalence and Well-Being Study.

Does everyone develop PTSD after a traumatic event?

It is normal for most individuals to experience some form of distress after highly traumatic events. This may be a variety of emotions including fear, guilt, shame, helplessness or anger. The good news is that most will return to normal functioning after a short period of time, from a few days to several weeks, without intervention. However, even these people will still have recurrent memories of the event and some sadness or other emotions associated with these memories.

What is a normal reaction?

Most people experience strong reactions after traumatic events.

These may include:

• re-experiencing the event (visual images when either awake or asleep)
• intrusive thoughts about the event
• a desire to avoid anything associated to the event
• feelings of panic or being highly anxious
• feeling sad, tearful, hopeless or down
• feeling disorientated or that you have changed as a person
• increase alcohol intake or misuse of other substances such as nicotine
• feelings of guilt or anger
• trouble concentrating or poor memory
• sleep disturbance, excessive alertness or being easily startled
• feeling unable to control your moods, especially anger
• having difficulties managing relationships with others.

The key is the impact these symptoms have upon your ability to do your work and to maintain effective relationships with those around you. In most cases, the symptoms will subside by themselves, without treatment, and people can function normally.

When should I seek help?

If the symptoms above persist for more that four weeks, or they are causing you considerable distress and impacting upon your ability to work or function socially, you need to seek help.

Will seeking help damage my career?

PTSD is an illness that can affect anyone at any time. It is not a sign of weakness or some form of flaw in your character. With appropriate treatment the most likely outcome is that you will recover fully and go on to lead a productive, full life. However, the earlier you seek help the better the outcome will be for you. Likewise, you have valuable skills and experience - it is not Defence policy to discharge members if there is any chance of recovery. Sometimes, however, recovery is not always possible and then, like any other chronic illness which is not compatible with military service, you may be discharged. So, seek help early and the chances of this happening are greatly reduced.

Where can I get help?

If you are experiencing ongoing distress please seek help as soon as possible. Contact your local Medical Centre, Chaplain, Psychologist, Social Worker, Duty Officer/Officer of the Day or your immediate Chain of Command. You don't have to deal with PTSD on your own and there is help available.

Related links:

Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service
At East Mental Health