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911 Dispatchers At Risk For PTSD, Study Finds

The Huffington Post  |  By Posted: 03/29/2012 5:42 pm Updated: 03/29/2012 5:43 pm

911 Dispatchers Ptsd

Soldiers, police, firemen and people who've suffered abuse aren't the only ones with a high risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) -- a new study shows that 911 dispatchers may be at risk, too.

Researchers from Northern Illinois University found that the 911 dispatchers still experienced the emotional distress associated with PTSD, even though they were not directly in the traumatic event. Their research is published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress.

"This is the first study on emergency dispatchers, who experience the trauma indirectly," study researcher Dr. Michelle Lilly, of Northern Illinois University, said in a statement. Lilly worked with fellow researcher Heather Pierce, who previously worked as a 911 dispatcher.

According to a study called the National Comorbidity Survey Replication, PTSD's lifetime prevalence is 6.8 percent among U.S. adults. However, it should be noted that the survey was conducted between 2001 and 2003.

For the study, Lilly and Pierce talked to 171 emergency dispatchers who worked in 24 states. On average, the study participants were white females, 38 years old on average and had more than 11 years experience.

The researchers asked the dispatchers about the sorts of calls they receive, as well as their emotional distress that results from the calls. They also asked them to detail the most distressing calls they'd ever received.

More than 16 percent of them said that the most disturbing calls were about a child's death or injury, while 12.9 percent of them said the worst calls dealt with people who were suicidal. Nearly 10 percent said their worst calls had to do with officer-related shootings, and the same percentage said unexpected death of an adult was their most traumatic sort of call.

"I was blown away by how upsetting some of (the incidents) would be for most people," Lilly told ABC News, saying that some dispatchers had to guide parents "through CPR after they have discovered their child has drowned in the pool."

Lilly told ABC News of another startling call recounted by a 911 dispatcher:

She was particularly shaken by a call involving two young siblings, one of whom had a mental health problem. The healthy child called 911 and locked himself in a room for protection, but the dispatcher "could hear the sibling trying to take the hinges off the door and intending to attack."

The researchers found that in 32 percent of the calls, the dispatchers' peritraumatic stress levels were very high. Peritraumatic stress occurs either during or in response to a traumatic event.

And 3.5 percent of people reported stressful reactions that were severe enough that they could be diagnosed for PTSD, the researchers said.

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