Trauma takes its toll on ambulance workers

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The Independent Online
TWO IN 10 ambulance workers suffer from flashbacks of traumatic accidents when they are off duty and should be receiving help, according to a study published today.

Researchers from Oxford University have found that ambulance men and women, who are often first to arrive at the scene of car accidents, suicides or cot deaths, are particularly prone to suffering from post-traumatic stress if they can relate to an accident or if they try to suppress their memories of the incident.

The study, published in the Brtitish Journal of Clinical Psychology, reveals that the distress experienced by the 15,500 ambulance service workers in England and Wales is greater than previously thought. Unlike other professions where claims are common, only three ambulance service workers have claimed to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Ambulance workers are seeing very traumatic events.They are the first at horrific scenes and have to deal with them immediately," said Anke Ehlers, a professor of clinical psychology at Oxford University and a co-writer of the study. "Our study shows that if they come across an injured child and they have a son or daughter of a similar age they are more like to suffer from worry and stress after the incident."

The researchers spoke to 56 paramedics and technicians to discover which events they found most stressful. Most workers said the most stressful incidents were those involving children, dealing with relatives or parents, and dealing with burns patients, according to the report. And 21 per cent of those questioned said they had suffered flashbacks of accidents or events that they had found distressing. Professor Ehlers also discovered that those who tried to forget what they had seen were most at risk from flashbacks while at home or off duty.

"People who work for the ambulance service are, by their nature, good at coping, but unwanted memories that pop into one's mind without apparent reason are among the normal reactions to traumatic events and cannot be prevented by suppressing them. Similarly, numbing emotional reactions is not helpful," she said.

However, workers in the ambulance service said that every service had its own method of dealing with traumatic incidents. "There are two schools of thought on stress debriefing," said Gron Roberts, chief executive of the Essex Ambulance Service. "Some people think that stress counselling just makes things worse, but others think it is worthwhile."

Jon Richards, a spokesman for the public service union Unison, said post-traumatic stress disorder was an issue in the ambulance service. "Part of the problem is a macho management culture, which means people are reluctant to admit they have a problem. We need to change this," he said.