Emergency dispatchers may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder

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(CBS News) Even though they aren't experiencing trauma firsthand, emergency dispatchers can experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

According to a study published in the March issue of the Journal of Traumatic Stress, even though emergency dispatchers didn't know the victims or were there when the event happened, they still could experience symptoms that lead to the psychological disorders.

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"Post-Traumatic psychological disorders are usually associated with front line emergency workers, such as police officers, fire fighters or combat veterans," study author Dr. Michelle Lilly, an assistant professor of psychology from Northern Illinois University in Dekalb, said in a written statement. "Usually research considers links between disorders and how much emotional distress is experienced on the scene of a traumatic event. However, this is the first study on emergency dispatchers, who experience the trauma indirectly."

In the study, researchers surveyed 171 emergency dispatchers currently working in 24 states.They were mostly white women who were an average age of 38 with more than 11 years of experience. The subjects were questioned about the calls they answered, the emotional distress they had because of those calls, the types of calls that were most bothersome and the worst call they had ever received.

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The dispatchers reported a high level of distress following of 32 percent of potentially traumatic calls. A small fraction of the dispatchers - 3.5 percent - had symptoms that qualified as PTSD.

The most bothersome calls involved the unexpected injury or death of a child, which accounted for 16 percent of dispatchers' "worst" calls. Next was suicidal callers at 13 percent, and then 10 percent were related to police-officer shootings. Another 10 percent involved the unexpected death of an adult.

"While they are specifically trained to do what they do and (employers) try to pick people who are resilient to every reaction, these things do tend to overwhelm at that moment in time," Dr. Alan Manevitz, psychiatrist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, tells HealthPop. He was not involved in the study.

Manevitz warns dispatchers may experience both PTSD and what he calls "burning out," a non-scientific diagnosis which he categorizes when people who work at high stress position suffer severe work-related stress. "It can either be physical or mental trauma which causes you have loss of initiative or loss of efficiency at work," he explains.

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He said certain risk factors may raise PTSD risk from working in stressful situations, including depression, substance abuse patterns or panic disorders.

What can help? The researchers suggest policy changes and more support for emergency dispatchers. Manevitz says talking it out is a good start.

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Says Manevitz, "It's important that people who are working in stressful situations have their own way of talking about the stress to other colleagues and emergency dispatchers."

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