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Olwen Anderson's Blog

The extra tag needed on an emergency services uniform

Saturday, June 10, 2017
Thank heavens for our emergency services. When flood waters rise they head out in boats to pull people to safety. Rush into burning buildings. Pull us out of mangled cars after an accident. Keep us alive on the way to the hospital. Keep us safe. So if you are one of the many people in uniform out there, we are immensely grateful.

Those uniforms you wear seem pretty sturdy. Tough-looking overalls, hard hats, protective boots and gloves. I guess each set comes with a helpful washing instructions label like “wash in cold water”. But perhaps there should be an extra tag: “Warning: wearing this uniform will not protect you from emotional trauma. Seek regular support.” Because that uniform can protect you from a lot of muck and mud, but it can’t protect you from the trauma of witnessing the distress of people you're looking after.

It’s now widely accepted that those who look after us are actually human, aren’t immune to the effects of trauma, and can be affected by other people’s distress. But media reports indicate it’s still difficult for many in the helping professions to reach out for ongoing support. Maybe because it may seem like everyone else on the team is coping, not affected. But it’s away from the main event when there’s time and space to think that feelings can surface. Sometimes you can recognise that what you’re feeling is about what you witnessed; and sometimes the feelings emerge just as a sense that you’re not functioning as well as usual, or your relationships are struggling.

Tempting as it is to numb these unpleasant feelings with alcohol or some other unhelpful coping strategy, the sense of feeling affected just returns when you sober up. It doesn’t help that the culture in some workplaces actively deters any need for extra support, deeming it a sign of weakness. But as anyone who has gone through counselling will attest, fronting up to talk over your feelings requires an immense amount of courage.

In many of the helping professions like counselling we are obliged to have ongoing ‘supervision’ through counselling to help us manage our feelings about what we are witness to. And yet, this kind of supportive 'supervision’ still isn’t an mandatory part of the job in other fields, like emergency services. If it were, perhaps more of our heroic helpers would feel comfortable accepting help for themselves so they can keep helping us.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'How To Avoid Developing PTSD'

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