by Veronique Moseley
“it is one of the most confusing, heart wrenching and lonely experiences to watch someone you love riding a rollercoaster of emotional states from intermittent irrational angry outbursts to complete emotional distancing, interspersed with moments of tears, hopelessness and thoughts of self-harm… and still, no one believes that things are really as bad as what you’re saying”
This week, for the umpteenth time, I heard from an emergency services worker who sought help for dealing with his stress levels. He was told by someone, by his organizational support staff that his problems are not work related, they are merely relationship problems. As additional motivation to take this advice on board, he was told that PTSD is extremely rare in the services; therefore, he should stop thinking about his personal stresses and focus on what is wrong with his relationship.
That is word for word what I was told six years ago when I phoned to seek help for my partner. In my case, this was compounded by a psychologist unfamiliar with emergency services stress, who held the same view. Nothing wrong with Ross, it was simply that the relationship was broken. And I should get counseling to face the fact that my relationship was over.
This kind of advice is based on old school fears. It relies on the notion that if you inform someone about depression, anxiety or PTSD, or admit that it exists in the services, than there will be some sort of a claim, or financial draw on the organization’s resources. It implies that giving people information will lead to too many in the service “faking” mental illness in the same way that people “fake” back injuries. I won’t expand on this; suffice it to say that there are rigorous claims processes in place to remove the chance of misrepresentation. To presume that someone who puts their hand up for help has the ultimate aim of claiming compensation is a totally unfounded, judgmental and destructive belief.
So what are the consequences of this sort of advice?
It re-directs a genuine and often difficult personal plea for help in a direction that not only removes responsibility for self in terms of seeking help, it fosters denial. The problem is no longer about the first responder, it’s a “couple” problem. Or it’s the partner. Whatever feelings or thoughts inspired this person to seek help are now blamed on the relationship – the partner is the cause of all these horrible feelings.
The frightening thing is that superficially this will most likely make perfect sense. After all, the relationship hasn’t been happy for a while. One of the most common statements I receive from partners of those diagnosed with PTSD is “I seem to be the enemy – he or she is fine with everyone else, but at home every feeling of frustration is somehow my fault”.
This kind of advice denies the possibility of mental health issues, but instead places the “cause” of the problem directly onto a partner. This thinking works against evidence that early intervention and informed support networks will assist with a more effective recovery process and may also reduce the severity of stress symptoms. Additionally, evidence has also shown us that families are the most important resource to a first responder when it comes to mental health. How does blaming the relationship foster support within the family?
The more concerning aspect of this sort of advice is that the person who is already in a fragile state of mind now has a reason to ignore their own wellbeing – he or she has a reason for feeling the way they do. He or she has a cause, a “target”. So what happens if this person who was asking for help does in fact have PTSD? There’s a good chance that the partner is already being blamed for all of the first responder’s negative thoughts and feelings. There is also a good chance that this behaviour is not extended to anyone outside the household. Those people witness “the mask” of a hard-working, rational, happy-go-lucky person.
There is now a circle of people around this first responder who are perpetuating the belief that there is nothing wrong with them, supporting their denial, and supporting the notion that the partner is the problem. He or she is no longer open to seeking help for him or her, and whatever support the partner was able to give before this advice, will now be ignored. Anger is a common symptom of PTSD so there is also a chance that increased anger and frustration will focus on the partner.
And there we have a very common picture for partners of those suffering with unmanaged PTSD. Partners are often blamed for the first responder’s issues, lacking in support and unable to convince friends or professionals that this is not just a relationship problem. Many partners end up with mental health problems of their own.
Speaking from personal experience, it is one of the most confusing, heart wrenching and lonely experiences to watch someone you love riding a rollercoaster of emotional states from intermittent irrational angry outbursts to complete emotional distancing, interspersed with moments of tears, hopelessness and thoughts of self harm. You know he has a mental health problem. But the world around you disagrees. His mask is firmly in place at work and in social situations. To the world, he is fine. You are the one with the problem. And now you truly do have a problem, because your self-esteem is shattered, your dreams of a happy future in ruins, finances are reduced and there are children involved at home who are also being affected. And still, no one believes that things are really as bad as what you’re saying – after all, he’s perfectly “normal” whenever they see him.
This rollercoaster can be a much shorter (and safer) ride if the person approached for help acknowledges the courage it takes to ask for help, resists the temptation to lay blame somewhere, and refers the first responder (or their partner) to a professional who understands emergency services stress. That first responder, and the family, may be saved from a ride that not only risks family break up and the mental health of those involved, but also risks a first responder’s life.
Suicide in emergency services is real. PTSD is real. Dealing with symptoms early is the key to effective recovery. Not just for the first responder – for the whole family.
Break the stigma of emergency services stress. Talk about it. And if someone tells you “it’s just a relationship problem”, don’t just take their word for it. Seek professional help from someone who understands emergency services stress and culture. For your own sake – and for the sake of your family.
About the Author: Veronique Moseley and her partner, Ross Beckley, run Behind The Seen – Emergency Services See What Others Don’t. Join the conversations about mental health and emergency services on Facebook.