Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is most identified with combat soldiers in the military. However, in reality, it can affect anyone that has an overwhelming life experience, especially if the event is unpredictable and out of the individual’s control.
PTSD can and does also affect those who pick up the pieces, such as emergency service workers, police and, in this case, crime scene and disaster restoration technicians.
It is perfectly normal to be upset during events like war, terrorism, physical or sexual violence, accidents, plane crashes and sudden deaths. The problem occurs when the painful memories don’t fade.
No one is immune - both men and women can get it. Studies have shown that PTSD effects as many as 8% of the male population and 20% of the female population. It can be caused by a single event or it can develop over time. Weeks, months and years can go by before the symptoms of PTSD appear.
What is it like to have PTSD? Sufferers often report that symptoms can come and go suddenly and that they are sometimes out of the blue or can be triggered by sights, sounds or smells. The sufferer sometimes has flashbacks, nightmares or feelings of intense anxiety. Sufferers may feel detachment or numbness. They can lose interest in activities and life in general. They may have trouble with sleep, anger or always be on heightened alert. Suicidal thoughts and feelings of depression and hopelessness can also bring on symptoms. The family lives of sufferers of PTSD can become problematic. It can stress marriages and relationships with the people that the sufferer needs most at the time. It can also affect other family members. For instance, it is not unheard of for spouses to show symptoms of PTSD as well as the sufferer.
Crime scene cleaners and disaster restoration technicians go into the worst areas and deal with individuals on their worst day every day. The stress and pressure from that alone is enough to push many people over the edge. Now combine that with calls at all hours of the day and night. A typical scenario: You have just gotten home from a 12-hour day cleaning a homicide and you’re drifting off to sleep as the phone rings. You have to go from zero to 100 instantly to close the job and you are back into the truck again to face the latest horror. After driving in the middle of the night for two hours you arrive. The wife of the deceased is inconsolable, you are asking her to sign papers and authorizations and now you have to don your bio suit. It is 90? out and 120? degrees in your suit and now you spend the next eight hours wiping away the horror for this family. Tomorrow, you’re going to do it all over again.
One of the main coping mechanisms can be avoidance and inappropriate behavior. For example, when cleaning up a job an employee begins laughing and joking. This becomes a problem if family is present. What may be thought of as disrespectful to the customer and family is actually the employee’s coping mechanism for dealing with the horror of what they are experiencing.
If you clean crime scenes or other disasters it is natural to be disturbed by the nature of the event. You wouldn’t be human if you weren’t affected. But disaster restoration techs often don’t seek medical treatment for fear of looking weak, retaliation at work, loss of income or little or no health insurance.
Charlene Vitali, retired EMS coordinator for Gloucester County Emergency Medical Services talks about the services they offer to their employees. “We have a host of resources for our employees. We have a group called the ‘Mercury team’ that responds to critical incidents for EMS workers involved in particularly difficult calls. The employees can access help anonymously. This process removes the stigma of reaching out for help. I have seen hardened career law enforcement and fire fighters devastated after a particularly serious call, especially those involving children. These are the people we try and reach out to. They are usually the last ones to reach out for help.”
Military and government workers are in a different position. The military has programs in place. Law enforcement and public safety have programs in place. Many law enforcement officers and ground zero workers are collecting full disability because they can no longer return to their occupations. The precedent is already set.
However unlike police and military, crime scene clean-up technicians see death every day. A technician could potentially see as many as 10 or more scenes a week.
The private sector is just starting to implement such programs. In fact I dare say the standard of care in the instance of crime scene restoration companies is that they should have a plan in place to deal with employees that are having issues. The scary thing for business owners is this may open a flood of workmen’s compensation issues. It is perhaps just a matter of time until our industry is hit with a worker’s compensation claim due to post-traumatic stress. Will that person ever be able to go back to work in the field?
My company has an SOP in place to deal with PTSD. We debrief after every call on the way home. My company has a trained counselor on staff to assist employees and our customers in dealing with their loss. When a call comes in, we try and find out as much as possible about the job before going into the scene. We prepare our employees for what they are about to see. Studies show 33% less trauma when persons are braced for a job. If you see signs of the employee having difficulty on the scene, immediately remove the individual from the stressful situation.
We debrief employees after every job, observe employees closely and actively look for signs of PTSD. We refer those possibly suffering immediately for medical treatment. The faster treatment is provided to sufferers the better the potential outcome.
I have been fielding an alarming amount of phone calls from individuals and technicians that want to get more information on cleaning up crime scenes. The call usually goes like this:
“Uh, I work for (blank) disaster cleaning company. We do a lot of flood clean-ups but my boss got a call to clean up this murder scene. My employer gave me gloves but I really didn’t know what I was doing and now I can’t get the thought of the scene out of my mind. Can I get sick from what I just did?”
The key to preventing PTSD is to make sure that employees are thoroughly trained about what the job entails. Knowing what to expect before arriving on the scene can prepare someone mentally and emotionally for what they are going to see. Organizations like ABRA offer several training sessions throughout the year to ensure that technicians are fully prepared to do their jobs.
Anyone who enters this field needs to know the mental risks as well as the physical risks. Disaster restoration technicians are some of the unsung heroes worth protecting.