During this pandemic year, those working in all our emergency services have being exposed to some of the greatest challenges faced by their respective professions in living memory.
For some, the intensity of this experience can lead to a type of mental health injury more classically associated with those serving in the Armed Forces during a time of conflict.
This injury is known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and research from a number of countries suggests that the condition may be experienced by about a third of military veterans. However, during the Covid pandemic, it is now becoming apparent that those working in the emergency services may be just as much at risk.
PTSD occurs when the brain is unable to process the memories and emotions linked to either a single traumatic event, or a number of events. As a result, symptoms of anxiety, nightmares and flashbacks occur frequently and can be triggered by, for example, a car backfiring or a crowded supermarket.
In some cases, the mental injury results in an almost continuously heightened emotional state which interferes with every aspect of life, relationships and work.
Now that this debilitating problem is better recognised, more treatment is on offer and a variety of trauma-focused cognitive therapies and medications can prove very helpful. However, for a significant minority, PTSD can become a permanent disability.
Thankfully, for veterans suffering with persistent PTSD, a charity working in West Sussex has established a unique but evidence-based approach to help. This is the PTSD Assistance Dogs programme provided by Service Dogs UK.
At a recent Zoom call with Garry Botterill, the charity’s operations director, he explained to me how the service, which has its main training centre near Petworth, is able to make such a difference to both the veterans and the dogs.
Service Dogs UK takes dogs from ‘rescue’ and partners them with veterans from the Armed Forces and emergency services where they train as a team for nine months. Together, they help each other to achieve and believe in themselves as they become successfully accredited assistance dog partnership teams.
Each veteran trains their dog under the expert guidance of the Service Dogs UK training team, who are always on hand to help with every aspect of dog training, welfare and ongoing support throughout the lifetime of the partnership.
Garry, who is a serving Police Sergeant, completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship in the United States and the Netherlands, where he researched the best programmes that provide specially-trained dogs to veterans who have PTSD.
As a result, the assistance dogs are trained to the highest level, so that they can perform all the usual assistance dog tasks, but also wake Veterans from nightmares, interrupt flashbacks or disassociation, fetch medications, provide positional support and take their Veteran to an exit when they feel overwhelmed.
Once the formal assessment of the training has been passed, the partnership is free to enjoy access to public places at all times.
Those veterans who have completed the programme are enthusiastic supporters of the charity. They know first-hand the power of bonding with their assistance dog, the joy of the companionship and the transforming benefit their new friend brings to their PTSD.
One veteran said: “My assistance dog has given me back my life.”
But the benefit works both ways, with the dog also enjoying a rewarding role in a new home.
No wonder the charity describes its work as ‘changing lives, two at a time’!”
If you would like to support Service Dogs UK with its remarkable work with those who have been injured in the line of duty, please see their website www.servicedogsuk.org for more information.