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August 2011 Issue
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The emotional toll

Witnesses to traumatic accidents can suffer long term psychological effects. Photo: Henry Worsp

Death, serious injury or even a near miss can be hugely traumatic experiences for us to witness and can have long term affects on our mental and emotional state. While much of the focus at an accident scene revolves around trying to save lives, manage injuries and evacuate people to advanced medical care it is common for the impact of this on the rescuers themselves to be overlooked.
We can’t cover the full impact of such events in this article, but will look at three possible outcomes.

* The best way to minimise and manage the long term affects is to talk through what we have just witnessed. This seems to assist us to work through what the scene means to us and essentially share the emotional toll.

Experience has shown that individual reactions to trauma differ widely and aren’t always what we would expect. Sometimes the staunchest member of the party might be more deeply affected than someone else with a softer more open personality. The key here is to watch for anyone unwilling to talk about what’s just happened or who might exhibit mood changes or similar immediately following the event.

* An Acute Stress Reaction (ASR) is a more complex condition caused by a massive release or several releases of adrenaline and other chemicals into the brain during the event in question. ASR technically can last up to a month (but generally disappears within a week) during which time symptoms such as the victim becoming dazed, disorientated, agitated, overactive, depressed, withdrawn or confused should cease within that timeframe.

* Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a psychological condition where single or multiple traumatic events cause an ongoing change in a person’s behaviour. The stress involved in a full-on traumatic event can cause changes to the chemical patterns within the brain that ultimately affect the individual’s quality of life. Symptoms can be similar to the ASR but more prolonged and can include sleeplessness and flashbacks.

When broaching this subject on courses we are often surprised by how many people still see the face of someone they have given CPR to when they close their eyes or can’t sleep very well due to nightmares about the incident. This could be years later. Treatment of PTSD is much more complex and should be conducted by a trained professional.

Everyone who experiences emergency situations in the outdoors is affected in some way. The trick is to assess who is affected and to what level. Research shows that a debrief following a critical incident can be beneficial to reducing the long term psychological affects. All members of the party should be encouraged, but not forced, to share their experience with others.

Those whose symptoms persist would do well to seek help from a professional counsellor or similar.

– Henry Worsp is a director of Peak: Outdoor Safety and Emergency Management