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Clocktower.Thursday 1 March 2018 2:56pm

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University of Otago researchers have found that the majority of front-line workers suffering from PTSD after the Christchurch earthquakes were non-traditional responders.

School teachers were among the majority of frontline workers with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following the Christchurch earthquakes, new University of Otago research shows.

Risk and protective factors for the course of post-traumatic stress disorder in frontline workers after the Christchurch, New Zealand earthquake, research based on a survey of 226 individuals, 140 from Christchurch and 86 from Hamilton, following the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes has just been published in the international journal, Disaster Prevention and Management, An International Journal.

Lead researcher David McBride, Associate Professor in Occupational and Environmental Medicine, says one of the major findings is that the majority of the frontline workers suffering PTSD were “non-traditional responders”, many being teachers.

David McBride small
Associate Professor David McBride, Occupational and Environmental Health, University of Otago.

Those who had PTSD were more likely to be female, a teacher, or exposed to more than 11 critical incidents relating to the earthquake (such as being injured or seeing buildings collapse). The distress persisted over the 12 month follow-up period.

Teachers consistently had high scores for emotional exhaustion, anxiety and social dysfunction. The need to provide social support was a key indicator among this group of people.

The researchers say that although not widely recognised, social service providers do have a role in disaster recovery as part of a community network that mobilises to provide emotional and social support, with a specific role in assessing and supporting child mental health.

Associate Professor McBride says the persistence of PTSD symptoms among teachers suggests that preventive measures are required and the researchers have passed on their findings to the teachers unions, NZEI Te Riu Roa and the New Zealand Post Primary Teachers' Association.

“We are working with them to help their understanding, so we can apply the findings to future circumstances,” Associate Professor McBride says.

The aim of the study was to characterise risk factors for PTSD symptoms among frontline workers responding to the Christchurch earthquakes. Because, were it possible to identify risk factors for persistent PTSD symptoms vulnerable populations could be identified, interventions designed and long-term health consequences avoided.

Frontline workers undertaking emergency operations were exposed to potential trauma-inducing events with rescue efforts following the quakes. There was a mix of non-traditional responders and traditional front line workers participating in the survey. Traditional frontline workers are those trained to respond, including the uniformed organisations, the Police, Fire and Ambulance services and healthcare workers.

Non-traditional responders providing continuity of social services included in the survey were utility, construction and demolition workers, Māori wardens, Red Cross workers, school teachers and non-government service organisation staff.

Non-traditional responders have leadership and management roles in crisis, both during the event and in the much longer recovery phase. Previous research has highlighted the role of school principals and teachers in recovery, also how schools support the emotional recovery of staff, students and families.

There was a particular problem in engaging with the 'uniformed' services for the survey. The sample is therefore probably not fully representative of that group, which, though not immune to the effects, tends to be self-selected, “work hardened”, or otherwise acclimatised to the impacts of psychological stress.

However, the reseachers say they are reassured by an analysis of another survey following the Enschede fireworks disaster in the Netherlands in 2000 which showed that, despite the existence of selective participation, the selection effect was not substantial enough to bias the PTSD prevalence estimates.

Co-authors in the study were Senior Research Fellow Kirsten Lovelock, Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington; Daniel Shephard, Department of Psychology, Auckland University of Technology; Maria Zubizarreta, Nancy Porter and James Burch from the Department of Epidemiology and Statistics, University of South Carolina.

Link to the article:

For further information please contact:

David McBride
Associate Professor in Occupational and Environmental Medicine
Tel +64 3 479 7208

Liane Topham-Kindley,
Senior Communications Adviser,
Tel +64 3 479 9065

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