Paris attacks: Identifying PTSD in survivors is an internal comms issue

For all the people so tragically killed on 13 November in Paris, there are many hundreds or more who witnessed the atrocities and will be deeply traumatised, writes Patrick Rea of PTSD Resolution.

Identifying PTSD symptoms among staff following a traumatic event is an internal comms issue, writes Rea
Identifying PTSD symptoms among staff following a traumatic event is an internal comms issue, writes Rea
They will return to work at some stage, hopefully. But how will they be affected? Will their employers recognise if they are suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and know what to do about it?

Most organisations have, or should have, contingency plans to deal with disruption to the business by acts of terrorism and other catastrophic events. 

But few plan for the impact of an incident on the mental health of staff – an event that can occur in or outside of the workplace.

The current level of threat from terrorism notified by MI5 is ‘severe’. So every responsible organisation needs a strategy to identify and deal with the impact of an event on the mental health of personnel.

There is no need to turn line managers or HR staff into psychotherapists, but rather to have an understanding of the symptoms of trauma in the organisation, and then be able to signpost treatment.

Some appropriate training is recommended for managers. 

The key issues can usually be dealt with in a half-day course, every couple of years or so – as is recommended for CPR resuscitation training. One could argue that both are essential skills.

There is an important internal communications role in encouraging a culture of openness in the organisation. 

It requires a clear strategy to identify and resolve issues when they arise, without fear of embarrassment or sanction for staff.

It should include a process for staff to say when they are struggling with a problem in some area of their work. 

It may not be directly related to an incident, but be symptomatic of trauma. 

Online assessment systems such as WeThrive are available for periodic staff reviews to identify quickly and easily if there might be a problem.

The strategy should include prompt access to professional help as a matter of course. 

After all, operational machinery is maintained regularly and repaired when necessary: it is rational to adopt the same approach with your people.

The local GP probably won’t be a trauma specialist. The NHS guidelines do not recommend medication for post-traumatic symptoms, but many GPs still offer antidepressants to new trauma cases. So the best advice is to insist on a referral to a trauma clinic.

However, therapy is not always the best policy. In many cases initial symptoms subside over a few days or weeks. 

It is usually best to let this happen by itself. ‘Critical incident debriefing’ – where everyone involved in an event is given counselling – is now thought to cause more problems than it solves.

If the symptoms have not subsided after a month, or have got worse, it is time to do something about it. 

In summary: if a member of staff is, or might be, suffering from the effects of trauma, policy should be to let them know that as an organisation you are aware of what they have been through; that the culture is to be open about stress reactions and to help them get help if necessary so that everyone can continue to work well together. 

Patrick Rea is comms director at PTSD Resolution

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