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In this week of Anzac commemorations, there have been many reminders that the suffering of defence force personnel can last way beyond active duty. Anzac Day itself is, for some, a dark reminder that triggers post traumatic stress.

After two tours of Afghanistan, Anzac Day was one of the hardest days to get through for bomb disposal expert Major Andrew Cullen. This week he told ABC 7.30 that, like countless veterans, he used to spend it drinking to excess to forget what he’d faced.

“Anzac Day is a difficult day for many veterans, including myself. It serves as a reminder of friends lost, sacrifices made and wounds that are unhealed.”

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, known as PTSD, is the leading cause of veteran suicide in Australia today.

Andy Cullen quotes some sobering figures: since 1999, 49 soldiers have been killed on active duty; in contrast over 300 veterans have taken their own lives since coming home, over that same time frame. Over 20 this year alone.

“These statistics have for a long time been a hidden cost of combat.”

PTSD harms families too

For the first time in two decades Andy Cullen attended a dawn service this year at Currumbin on the Queensland Gold Coast, addressing the crowd.

“No-one can underestimate the price that’s been paid by the individuals and the families and the price that will continue to be paid. There are hundreds, if not thousands, who will carry the psychological injuries with them for many years to come,” he said.

Andy’s wife, Zoe Cullen, says her heart broke when he told her he wanted to die on Anzac Day 2012.

Eventually, Andy got help from a psychologist and joined Mates4Mates, an organisation that supports Australian veterans.

He and Zoe have now co-written a book calledResurrected.It’s a raw account of being left broken, and the impact on one man’s marriage and family. But it’s also a story of hope for all those suffering from PTSD: ‘for those who want to overcome the life sentence of mental illness and have the courage to step out on the journey of coming to terms with finding their new identity.’ They’ve pledged that the funds will go towards raising awareness for PTSDand supporting veterans and their families who are suffering from it.

Other first responders suffer from PTSD

Andy and Zoe’s story is just one account of post-traumatic stress. They point out it doesn’t only hit veterans, it impacts on people in many other walks of life – an estimated 1 in every 20 Australians, from a wide demographic.

‘The current stigma surrounding mental health… prevents many individuals from seeking help and too often results in suicide.’

Police are also well known sufferers of PTSD, a fact that’s been highlighted this week by the coronial inquest into the suicide of former NSW police officer Ashley Bryant.

Mr Bryant was exposed to numerous traumatic incidents during the course of his 24 year career, including drownings, suicides, rapes and murders.

The inquest has been told the father of three was devastated upon being rejected for a full pension after suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and alcohol dependency.

Before he took his own life, Mr Bryant called triple-0, saying he didn’t want other officers and their families to be treated as he and his family had been.

“I can no longer live with the trauma of it and I want this to go to the state coroner. There needs to be more done, more things put in place for what happens.”

Police are not the only ‘first responders’ affected by PTSD because of their experiences at crime scenes, accidents, natural disasters and other violent, traumatic or stressful events. Ambulance officers and paramedics, fire fighters, state emergency service volunteers, witnesses and even news reporters and camera operators are all at risk.

Millions of Australian hit by PTSD

According to beyondblue, around 12 per cent of Australians will experience PTSD in their lifetime – men and women – and serious accidents are one of the leading causes.

Here’s how beyondblue describes it:

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a particular set of reactions that can develop in people who have been through a traumatic event which threatened their life or safety, or that of others around them. This could be a car or other serious accident, physical or sexual assault, war or torture, or disasters such as bushfires or floods. As a result, the person experiences feelings of intense fear, helplessness or horror.

There’s another tier of sufferers too: those who are repeatedly exposed to distressing accounts of traumatic events, including doctors, counsellors, court officials and journalists. Vicarious trauma, arising from reading about, hearing about or seeing first-hand the harm done to others, can effect even the most experienced mental health workers.

PTSD touches the lives of millions of Australians. It can happen to anyone. It is not a sign of weakness.

Better support and treatment

Australia21 is working towards better understanding of PTSD and its impacts. We recognise that it’s a ‘wicked problem’, one which has no easy solutions because each case is unique, dependent on the nature of the trauma and the person’s own history.

In early 2016, Australia21 approached FearLess Outreach, chaired by retired Admiral Chris Barrie, to propose a collaborative exploration of stress arising from trauma in Australia.

To start grappling with the issues, an Australia21/FearLess steering group commissioned a collection of invited essays by diverse experts and stakeholders. The result was the volume entitled Trauma-related stress in Australia: Essays by leading Australian thinkers and researchers, published in September 2016.

The accounts presented suggest that trauma-related stress is costing industries and the taxpayer many billions of dollars, in mental health impacts, criminality, drug and alcohol use, family disruption and lost productivity.

Those essays have set the scene for a national roundtable discussion, convened jointly by Australia21 and FearLess, with the support of three police organisations. This roundtable in early May 2017 will bring together senior, operational and health and safety staff from a wide range of first responder organisations across Australia, together with contributors to the essay volume and other experts.

From this, Australia21 will make a national push towards improved approaches to the issue of post traumatic stress.

Watch this space for an update soon.

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