Media release: Spillover stress – the forgotten impact of PTSD on first responder families

Fortem Australia is calling for more research to be done into the spillover effect of PTSD on partners and families of Australian first responders (FR).  

Secondary traumatic stress has been identified as a growing concern by international researchers studying PTSD cases among emergency service workers, and Fortem Australia is also seeing a rise in the number of Aussie first responder families coping with so-called “spillover stress”. 

Spillover stress can arise by way of behavioural changes in both the person with PTSD and the partner trying to maintain a “normal” household for the sake of children. 

Symptoms can present in the shape of increased alcohol or drug use, depression, and less inclination to be involved in daily family activities.

“These families potentially experience secondary trauma and stresses that cascade over from their FR partners’ work,” says Fortem Australia CEO John Bale.

“So these families will end up displaying mirror symptoms to what their loved one is experiencing.”

Fortem Australia has welcomed data collected from more than forty studies conducted with police, fire-fighters, paramedics and volunteer emergency workers in the US, Canada, Israel and South Africa.

The report has highlighted how a family’s wellbeing can be severely impacted by a PTSD case, hindering communication in relationships, and promoting withdrawal, resentment and hostility.

“Families experience anxiety for the safety of their FR partner, and there’s also a feeling of helplessness in not being able to intervene to get them the help they need,” says John Bale.

The report also found children of first responders were prone to experiencing spillover stress, showing behavioural symptoms like clinginess, fear that “bad things” will always happen and pressure to put on a brave face.

John Bale agrees with the report’s findings that more quantitative and qualitative research is needed.

Fortem Australia is currently the only national mental health program for first responders and their families,” he says.  “We need more robust evidence on the associated risk factors to create the wellbeing programs we know make a huge difference.”

Since its foundation in 2019, Fortem Australia has supported over 6,500 first responders and their families through science-backed social connection activities, clinical services, and transition programs.