A high risk professional is one that has a high risk of developing work-related PTSD.
Statistically speaking, certain professional have a much higher risk for developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) than others. For example, police, firefighters, and other emergency responders have rates of PTSD as high as 32%* Rates of PTSD are also estimated to be very high among combat veterans, international aid workers, overseas government employees.
PTSD is a condition that develops in response to a specific type of unexpected, life threatening event. The average person will experience only one or two of these types of events during their lifetime. High risk professionals experience “trauma” as part of their job description. When something unexpected or horrific happens, while others are running away in horror or confusion, these are the individuals who head towards the scene of the calamity. So from the perceptive of “more exposure to trauma equals a high risk for PTSD” it is not surprising certain professionals have a much higher risk than others.
This is a second, deeper reason for the higher rates of PTSD as well. High risk professionals need to be able to work competently in situations where the average untrained layperson would most likely freeze and be physically unable to move. For example, during combat, soldiers are expected to continue to function for extended periods of time situations where fellow soldiers (or innocent civilians) are seriously injured or killed. Other examples include police or other first responders that need to deal with adult or children who are victim of serious domestic violence or abuse. A normal “human” response would be so appalled or horrified by what they witnessed that they would immediately leave or freeze up, and be unable to move. These professionals are trained to ‘turn off’ this instinct and keep functioning effectively – ‘no matter what’. From a biological perspective, this means that these individuals need to be able at least temporarily to turn the processing of extremely intense, emotion based memories so their “human” brain can focus on dealing with other more pressing concerns: like keeping themselves or others out of harms’ way. This same ability that is essential to the professional success of these professionals also creates the pre-conditions for the development of PTSD, specifically:
- Professional experiences a situation where something extremely disturbing, unfair, or horrific occurs – i.e. an intentional or avoidable dead of a child
- The professional conditions to function professionally and competently during this time – i.e. stops processing this emotion based memory so can continue to function.
- At a later point in time this memory or memories is involuntarily reactivated.
- The professional does not know what is going on so actively avoids thinking about memory as well as emotionally shuts down to avoid reactivating this partially processed trauma memory.
- Over time, this situation, and the ensuring emotionally and physical distress caused by these memories gets worse and worse until it becomes pervasively functionally impairing – i.e. this professional develops PTSD