June 27 is recognized as National PTSD Awareness Day in the United States. According to the National Center for PTSD, an estimated 6% of the population will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. This day aims to raise awareness about the condition and to encourage dialogue about PTSD symptoms, diagnosis and treatments.
In this blog we’ll look at:
- What is PTSD?
- What causes PTSD?
- Who can get PTSD?
- Common PTSD symptoms
- How employers can support those with PTSD
What is PTSD?
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a condition that people develop after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. Although symptoms from PTSD look different for everyone, nightmares, anxiety and recurring distressing memories are common.
There have been multiple references to different forms of PTSD both in literature as well as common history. After World War I, ‘shell-shocked’ became a common term to describe what is now understood to be PTSD. In the decades that followed, various research on rape and Holocaust and other trauma victims proved that different types of traumas can cause PTSD.
In 1974, ‘Rape Trauma Syndrome’ was defined by psychologist Ann Wolbert Burgess and sociologist Lynda Lytle Holmstrom as a variant of PTSD. It was in 1980 that PTSD was formally included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM).
The first National PTSD Awareness Day was marked on June 27, 2010 by the Senate. This was spearheaded by Senator Kent Conrad to honor a North Dakota National Guard member who had committed suicide after two tours of duty in Iraq. In 2014, the Senate designated the whole of June as National PTSD Awareness Month.
What causes PTSD?
According to the mental health charity Mind, several events can cause someone to experience PTSD. Some of these include:
- Being involved in an accident like a car crash
- Being a victim of sexual assault
- Being abused or bullied – this includes instances of racism, sexism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and other abuses that attack your personal identity
- Being held hostage
- Experiencing violence like a terrorist attack or being in military combat
- Watching someone get hurt or killed (this is also known as secondary trauma)
- Experiencing a natural disaster like a flood or earthquake
- More recently, living through the COVID-19 pandemic
- Experiencing a traumatic childbirth as a mother
- Being diagnosed with a terminal illness
- Death of a loved one
Who can get PTSD?
Although it is unknown why some individuals develop PTSD and others do not, it is evident that certain traumatic events generate higher occurrences of PTSD. According to the Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 6%-32% of Law Enforcement, 9%-22% of EMT/Paramedics and 17%-32% of Firefighters suffer from PTSD. Military service members also fall into this category, with 11%-20% of OIF/OEF veterans experiencing PTSD symptoms.
Mind mentions that certain factors can make you more vulnerable to developing PTSD. Some of these include:
- Recurring trauma
- Poor or no support from friends, family or professionals
- Physical trauma or pain
- Additional stress from abuse, bereavement, financial difficulties, homelessness, incarceration or displacement
- Prior history of depression, stress or anxiety
Common PTSD symptoms
Each person’s experience of PTSD is different. Even if two people experience the exact same trauma – for example, a natural disaster – any PTSD they experience will be unique to them. Some common symptoms of PTSD include:
Vivid flashbacks or nightmares
This is a common symptom of PTSD where a person relives the event that caused the trauma. In addition to nightmares and flashbacks, you can also experience physical sensations like sweating, nausea, or tingling. You can also get distressed by visual or psychological reminders of the event.
Feeling on edge
Those experiencing PTSD often show signs of extreme alertness, defined as ‘hypervigilance’. In this state people can appear jumpy or be easily startled. They often find it hard to concentrate on everyday tasks. Hypervigilance also leads to disturbed sleep or insomnia which in turn can cause irritability and aggressive behavior.
Anyone experiencing this symptom actively avoids anything that reminds them of the trauma. This can include mentally blocking out details of the event, refusing to talk about it, feeling emotionally removed from the incident, feeling a constant need to stay busy to avoid thinking about the event and dependence on drugs or alcohol to block out memories.
Another common symptom of PTSD is experiencing extreme emotions like anger, guilt, and sadness. Those with PTSD also experience feelings of isolation and struggle with trust issues.
Some people with PTSD also report experiencing physical symptoms like chest pains, dizziness, headaches, and stomach aches.
How employers can support those with PTSD
Create an open culture
Creating a safe and open space for dialogue not only increases awareness, but also normalises conversations about PTSD and more broadly, mental health. Understanding that PTSD is not a sign of weakness is the first step to bringing awareness to this often misunderstood and misrepresented condition. Knowing what causes PTSD and that it affects different people differently is equally important for those who have PTSD, as well as for those who support them.
PTSD requires a medical diagnosis, so it’s important to seek help if someone you know is suffering. There are many great organizations and non-profits that offer support. Creating an open and supportive culture makes it easier for people to ask for help when they need it and removes the stigma attached with mental health issues.
There are several ways that companies can initiate conversations about mental health – from organizing webinars with mental health professionals to sharing helpful resources like blogs and podcasts on the company’s internal network.
Regular endorsement of mental health support
Businesses can refer employees to various mental health support programs including – designated Mental Health Ambassadors or Mental Health First Aiders and other peer support groups. Depending on the size of the company, they can signpost to either internal or external support. Some of these external sources include:
- American Red Cross
- Sidran Institute
- Headstrong Project (for veterans)
One way that companies can encourage employees to seek help is by offering therapy sessions as part of the broader benefits package. This is an excellent way of normalizing the topic of mental health and bringing it to the forefront.
Increasing mental health awareness training for line managers
Recent research shows that those suffering from PTSD don’t want their companies to address the cause of their trauma. Instead, what they seek is empathy from their peers and an environment where others ‘actively listen’. Employers should provide training to line managers to listen and respond appropriately, ask the right questions and spot early signs of PTSD. Open questions like ‘How are you feeling?’ and ‘How are you managing?’ can encourage people to open up and talk about their issues. This is particularly important in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic as people gradually returned to the office. The pandemic and multiple lockdowns have triggered different kinds of distress as well as PTSD.
Businesses have to make certain physical adjustments to create a safe and comfortable working space for employees. In the same way, they need to create a safe space for employees’ mental health as well. The right training for all involved stakeholders is the only way to achieve this.
Updating bereavement policies
Another way that businesses can support those suffering from PTSD especially after a bereavement, is by extending their bereavement leave, where possible, and extending the mental health support offered. Here again, managers should be trained to speak with bereaved employees and use their discretion to determine the kind of support required, on a case-by-case basis.
Proactively offering reasonable adjustments
One of the most effective ways that organisations can support employees with PTSD in the workplace is by proactively offering adjustments to the way they work. For example – if an employee is finding it hard to concentrate, offering a quiet work area for them, where possible, can be helpful to cut out distractions. Using noise-cancelling headphones and listening to soothing music can also help them focus better.
Similarly, if a team member gets easily agitated, it can be helpful to arrange a ‘quiet room’ or space where they can take a short break to calm down. Also, encouraging anxious team members to take multiple short breaks can prevent them from getting overly stressed and help them focus better.
At FDM, we value the mental health of our employees, which is why we’ve established employee assistance and wellbeing programs to ensure our people have the resources they need to be the best version of themselves, from our veteran community through to our graduate community. If you would like to learn more, please reach out to enquiriesUS@fdmgroup.com.