Focus on troops' quake trauma

Geoff Sutton
Geoff Sutton
Those attending the New Zealand Psychological Society conference in Queenstown yesterday gained a seldom heard perspective on how New Zealand Defence Force personnel coped with the trauma of serving in Christchurch after the February earthquake.

"An important thing to keep in mind [is that] military people are people," New Zealand Army central region psychologist Captain Geoff Sutton said.

"They are not robots and they are not removed from any kind of reactions that normal people have, so that's one of the things that we have to keep in mind here," Capt Sutton said.

Along with Royal New Zealand Navy psychologist Lieutenant Martin Fourie, Capt Sutton spoke of his experiences earlier this year as one of three psychologists deployed in Operation Awhina, the defence force psychological response in Christchurch.

Defence force personnel build resilience through training for certain situations, and by assisting individuals after stressful events to reinforce their coping mechanisms and create mentally hardy individuals and teams.

However, with 1800 personnel from the army, navy and air force deployed in Christchurch for everything from cordon duty through to body recovery and catering, the defence force saw the need for extra support.

To reduce the adverse effects of the stressful events, 500 of those people were briefed, with those seen as particularly vulnerable screened to see how they were coping.

One of the most effective methods was asking if anyone had "seen something disturbing or unpleasant", Lt Fourie said, recounting an experience of briefing a catering team.

One of those who put their hand up after being asked that question was obviously distressed by what he had witnessed, Lt Fourie said.

"When I spoke to him afterwards it turned out his family would come down every year to Christchurch and they had a family house there with a lot of memories.

"So when that house got destroyed, he wasn't sleeping and was experiencing all of that stuff."

Of the defence force staff serving in Christchurch, 56 were identified as at high risk of suffering from trauma - often those working in roles such as search and rescue - with 11 requiring further support and six referred for outside clinical help.

While the majority of people had coped well without intervention, especially those working in supply and logistics, the response team had learned not to assume whether people needed support or not, Lt Fourie said.

This was one of several lessons which would be incorporated into future training to further help with resilience training, he said.


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