On guard against PTSD

In recent years, much has been learned about stress and stress disorders impacting individuals who work in high-risk occupational industries — police, fire, rescue and disaster, military and emergency medical. While security professionals have been unjustifiably marginalized from high-risk occupations, the divide is narrowing as the role of private security industry grows and evolves.

Security professionals will encounter a variety of threats that can cause traumatic stress: terrorism, espionage, piracy on the high seas, bombs, sabotage, workplace violence and active shooters, to name just a few. These threats present a challenging and dangerous environment.

Thus, the role of the security professional has become increasingly more complex, and the chance of being placed in harm’s way has significantly increased. With these increased risks, the potential to be exposed to a continuous level of stress has a high probability. Security professionals who are placed in crisis situations will experience post-traumatic stress, which is a normal reaction; however, the problem arises when the stress-induced symptoms persist, intensify and eventually become debilitating — defined as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Types of Stress

Excessive stress has emerged as a significant challenge to public health. More than 40 years ago, the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General declared that when stress reaches excessive proportions, psychological changes can be so dramatic as to have serious implications for both mental and physical health.

The two categories of stress that predominantly effect security professionals are cumulative stress and post-traumatic stress (PTS). Cumulative stress can be described as the erosion of one’s mental and physical health over time. In the past, these effects could have been described as "burn out" with the three phases: stress arousal, energy conservation and exhaustion. When routine stress turns into cumulative stress, it is due in part to people not addressing in a healthy way the accumulation of these stressors.

Eventually, coping resources run out, and it overwhelms the individual both mentally and physically — characterized as PTS. This ultimately becomes life encompassing; and while it should be noted that stress does not affect all people in high-risk occupations, for those affected, it is a painful experience. The symptoms of PTS include:

• Deterioration in performance;
• Deterioration in mental/physical health;
• Deterioration of relationships; and
• Deterioration of the person.

By comparison, cumulative stress can be described as the deterioration of your well- being, then PTS (sometimes called critical incident stress), can be thought of as the overwhelming of your state of psychological function. PTSD was first named in 1980 as an anxiety disorder with symptoms ranging from intensive memories, avoidance arousal and stress. To be classified as PTSD, the condition must be diagnosed after 30 days of being exposed to the traumatic event. PTSD can be diagnosed in 1 percent to 3 percent of the general population, 9 percent of urban adolescents, 15 percent to 20 percent of combat veterans, and 15 percent to 32 percent in emergency response workers.

The primary cause of PTSD is a stressful or traumatic event. Further, the risk of PTSD increases if the event is sudden and unpredictable, long lasting, recurring, contains real or threatened violence, involves multiple forms, and occurs in the early years before the personality is fully formed.

Symptoms of PTSD include self-recrimination (feeling of shame or guilt, shattered views of one’s self, the world and other people); and mood disturbances including depression, anxiety, hostility and grief for losses. The abuse of alcohol and drugs in an attempt to self-medicate combined with impulsive behavior – absence from work or sudden changes in life style may occur. Death anxiety, compulsion to repeat the trauma and self-mutilation are dangerous and extreme complications of PTSD.

Addressing Stress is Essential for Security Professionals

The longer security professionals are exposed to a traumatic event, the greater the potential for PTS and PTSD. In any traumatic event, if the security professional’s concept of safety and the ability to respond to the event comes into question, this becomes the basis from which PTSD arises. That sudden, unpredictable event that lasts for an extended period of time, and contains real or threatened danger that recurs or is likely to recur, thereby creates this sense of total loss of control.

The need to address the effects of stress and traumatic exposure on security professionals becomes essential and should be part of the operational equation. Training, psychological support, and participation all increases the likelihood that security managers will understand and feel comfortable with this realization.

The ability to see new possibilities and to create new opportunities enables security managers to develop alternatives to address the effects of stress and traumatic exposure. The road to recovery and growth is obviously different for each individual; however, the key to this discussion is the recognition that security professionals are at high risk for suffering the effects of stress and trauma and operational policies and procedures need to be in place to ensure the continued mental health of each individual.

7 Steps to Managing Traumatic Stress

A Critical Incident Stress Management program (CISM) is one proven approach to creating those operational policies and procedures to help security professionals deal with traumatic stress. When dealing with the complexities of stress management, it is imperative to have a systematic, comprehensive approach to treatment, which CISM provides. There are seven core components in the CISM process:

1. Pre-Crisis preparation: Psychological preparedness training is a primary technique and if implemented prior to an actual crisis event, will set the appropriate expectations while enhancing the behavioral response. You can equate this technique to a type of mental preparedness training for high-risk personnel. Information should be communicated about stress and trauma, specifically, the common signs and symptoms of psychological distress.

2. Demobilization: Used at mass disaster sites for large groups, to assist personal transition from the site to home or work. The process should be conducted away from the site and be an informational briefing on stress, trauma and coping techniques.

3. Defusing: A time-sensitive intervention and should be conducted within the first 12 hours, post event. This is designed to reduce acute stress and tension levels.

4. Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD): Small group discussions concerning the crisis event. They are detailed and structured and are normally conducted 2-10 days post-event.

5. Individual Crisis Intervention: Can be an on-scene (during the event) technique or any time after the event. It is normally conducted as a one-on-one intervention.

6. Family CISM: The objectives of Family CISM teams are to define critical incident stress from the family perspective, look at the impact on the families, and provide resources and strategies, and CISM family interventions.

7. Follow-up Referral: Can be done at any time post-intervention and are usually symptom-driven. The key is to assess the mental status of the individual(s) and ensure they have access to a higher level of care.

Employment in private security is projected to more than double that of public law enforcement for the foreseeable future, according to ASIS International, and Freedonia projects U.S. demand for privately contracted security professionals to increase 5.4 percent annually to $64.5 billion in 2016. As professional security service demand continues to rise, so does the chance your security force will be exposed to traumatic stress. As a security or business executive, these concepts should give you a baseline to ensure the continued mental health of your guard force.

About the Author: Joseph A. Finley, Jr., Ph.D., CPP is Director of the North America Training Institute, G4S Secure Solutions (USA), Inc . He is a retired FBI Special Agent and served as an Employee Assistance Program counselor. He is a certified Critical Incident Stress Management trainer through the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, (ICISF). Additionally, he has received specialized training in mass disaster and terrorism through ICISF and has been certified as a Certified Trauma Responder with the Association of Traumatic Stress Specialists.