Beyond Duty – support can help you grow through trauma, post-traumatic growth is possible.

All ‘Beyond Duty’ artworks by Phillip Marsden and Ken Chung, our digital scribes from KPMG.

First responders are heavily impacted by trauma: one in three first responders experience high psychological distress from trauma experienced on the job, and vicarious trauma affects their families. 

While trauma is an experience that none of us would choose, many people come out of it with a newfound sense of purpose and appreciation for life. 

At Fortem’s summit, Beyond Duty – what is the bigger picture in first responder wellbeing?, Professor Zachary Steel shared some thoughts on post-traumatic growth. 

“Everything we talk about is how destructive trauma is. Often, people who are injured think they’ll only ever be less than they were,” says Professor Steel, who is based at the University of NSW, and President of the Australasian Society for Traumatic Stress Studies and Chair of St John of God Trauma and Mental Health. 

“As you go through this trauma injury battle and journey, the work you do is enormously valuable. You will come out of it to be more than you are – you’ll develop new resources and new skills that you’ve never had before.” 

What is post-traumatic growth? 

Jae Lee, Fortem’s General Manager of Service Delivery, says that perhaps the easiest way to think about post-traumatic growth is to consider the rebuilding that takes place after a fire.

“If a bushfire goes through and burns buildings to the ground, post-traumatic growth is not just about rebuilding them as they were. It’s about building them to be stronger, fire-proof structures because you have learnt things through that process.” 

Post-traumatic growth is not the same as bouncing back.

“Resilience is about weathering the event, whereas for post-traumatic growth to occur those buildings have to have burnt down in the first place. The struggle and the suffering is important in growth,” Jae says.

“Post-traumatic growth is a gradual process. You can’t force it to happen, but you can put supports into place that facilitate it.”

The support that can encourage post-traumatic growth 

Drawing on supportive people is one of the most important ways to experience growth after a traumatic experience. 

“Having people around you who can support you through the changes in your thinking can make a difference – they can inspire you and be inspired by you,” Jae says. 

“These trusted people can also tell you when they notice that you can do something that you weren’t able to do before, which can help you identify growth.” 

Seeking professional support is also important to help through trauma, with psychologists having practical strategies in place to assist post-traumatic growth to happen. 

Having the space to talk about your experience can help you to frame what happened in your mind, which can help you to grow. 

What post-traumatic growth looks like 

Post-traumatic growth is not a specific ‘before’ and ‘after’, so it can be difficult to recognise. You may have seen it in others; for example, the people who go through cancer and then start a cancer charity, or those who emerge from a near-death experience with an appreciation for all the little things in life.  

Post-traumatic growth is more commonly marked by: 

  • An appreciation for life and the people around you, and seeing the good things in each day Improved relationships with family, friends and colleagues 
  • Being open to new opportunities 
  • Finding new strengths within yourself 
  • Feeling a sense of meaning or purpose through the adversity and into your future 

There’s much more to this conversation, click play to watch…

More about our speaker:

Professor Zachary Steel – University of NSW; President of the Australasian Society for Traumatic Stress Studies; Chair of St John of God Trauma and Mental Health. 

Professor Zachary Steel from the School of Psychiatry at the University of NSW, heads a program of clinical research into the impact of trauma on veterans, first responders, refugees, asylum seekers and civilian populations. 

He holds the St John of God Professorial Chair of Trauma and Mental Health and has a 25 year history of working with populations affected by trauma. 

He is a Professorial Fellow with the Black Dog Institute and is the President of the Australasian Society for Traumatic Stress Studies.

Further recordings from ‘Beyond Duty’ will be published to the Fortem Australia website over the coming weeks. The community is invited to share those recourses widely, be agents for change themselves and keep the conversation and connection going.

Fortem activities, events and community engagements are designed to support the mental fitness of our first responder families. Read more about Our Approach.
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