PTSD in the Security Industry – An Overview of a Misunderstood and Complex Condition

Robin Smith, (2021, September 1). PTSD in the Security Industry – An Overview of a Misunderstood and Complex Condition. Psychreg on Mental Health. https://www.psychreg.org/ptsd-security-industry/

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Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder that sometimes occurs following a traumatic event. Many experiences can cause PTSD, including incidents of physical or sexual assault, the death of a loved one, survival of a terrorist attack or natural disaster, road traffic accidents, being regularly victimised or harassed, combat experience, being diagnosed with a severe health issue, childhood abuse or neglect and even negative relationship experiences.

In many cases, even the threat or possibility of these events occurring is enough to cause PTSD. Sometimes, PTSD can occur without a traumatic experience directly happening to the sufferer (for example, a police officer regularly exposed to the details of murder or violent crime may develop PTSD, as could the witness to a fatal car accident).

People living with PTSD can experience symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, panic attacks, negative emotional states and more besides. The condition has been conclusively linked with depression and even suicide.

PTSD is caused by the brain remaining in the state that activates our ‘fight or flight’ instincts long after a traumatic or unsettling event has concluded. In effect, the PTSD sufferer still feels as they did during the traumatic event itself. This creates a state of being that, if left untreated, can persist for the duration of a person’s lifetime and negatively impact their quality of life.  

A recent study of violence against security staff (the largest ever undertaken) revealed that almost 60% of Britain’s security operatives have been subjected to experiences at work that haunted them for 24 hours or more after the event occurred.

Worse still, almost 50% of our respondents admitted that they had experienced a dream, nightmare, or flashback concerning an incident that occurred at work. These are two of the most common symptoms of PTSD.

Our findings corroborated those made by the University of Portsmouth’s groundbreaking 2020 study of the mental health of security operatives, which found that 40% of Britain’s security workforce were experiencing PTSD symptoms.

While we cannot say with certainty that any of our respondents are actually suffering from the condition, the possibility of PTSD is present in all respondents who answered ‘yes’ to the two relevant questions. There is a very high statistical likelihood that at least some of our study’s respondents are presently living with this difficult and greatly misunderstood psychological disorder.

The term ‘PTSD’ has existed since 1980, when the American Psychological Association included it in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) for mental health practitioners. However, the disorder described by the term appears to be as old as humanity itself. In fact, science suggests that it’s older even than that, as PTSD can also occur in the animal kingdom.

History is replete with records regarding the condition that is today known as PTSD. In 480 BC, the Spartan King Leonidas dismissed soldiers from his army for psychologically breaking under the strain of combat. The Greek writer Herodotus, sometimes referred to as ‘The Father of History’ recalls an Athenian soldier who went blind from fear following an especially bloody battle.

In 1598, William Shakespeare published Henry IV, Pt I, a play that features, through the character of Hotspur, what is probably the most vivid and evocative depiction of PTSD in historical times. By 1678, Swiss physicians had formally diagnosed the condition, calling it ‘nostalgia’.

During the American Civil War, PTSD was known as ‘soldier’s heart’ or ‘exhaustion’. During the First World War, the term ‘shell shock’ (the theory being that exploding bombs and shells caused nerve damage) was commonly used to describe it.

Doctors of the Second World War preferred to use the term ‘battle fatigue’, while during the post-war period it was known as ‘stress response syndrome’ or, in the midst of the Vietnam War, ‘post-Vietnam syndrome’.

No matter what the terminology, the symptoms remain basically the same. There are 4 main groups of symptoms associated with PTSD. These are:

  • Intrusive thoughts (often in the form of flashbacks).
  • Mood alterations (a person suffering from PTSD may become excessively irritable or change moods very quickly).
  • Hypervigilance (This means that the person is constantly ‘on edge’ and often overreacts to being startled or disturbed).
  • Avoidance (Here, the person with PTSD will do anything possible to avoid exposure to their triggers, no matter how difficult this becomes).

Within these four groups, the symptoms themselves can include mood swings, panic attacks, nausea, fits of rage, chest pains, low self-esteem, self-harm, self-isolation, insomnia, involuntary shaking and many more besides.

PTSD appears often in popular culture, although depictions of it are occasionally misleading and sometimes inaccurate. There is a long list of fictional characters that suffer from PTSD, including Bruce Wayne/Batman, Harry Potter, Captain Picard, Jason Bourne, The Doctor (particularly the 9th incarnation), Hercules, Tony Stark/Iron Man, Barbara Gordon/Batgirl and many more.

Moreover, a number of famous/influential people have grappled with the condition as well, including actress Whoopi Goldberg, singer Ariana Grande, ‘King of Comics’ Jack Kirby, author Charles Dickens, tennis star Monica Seles, actor Shia LeBeouf, Jackie Kennedy Onassis (widow of former US President John Kennedy), actress Reese Witherspoon, and ‘Rolling Stones’ frontman Mick Jagger. Anyone can develop symptoms of PTSD. It is not a reflection on either a person’s courage or cowardice, but simply a function of the mind.

If you are still experiencing symptoms such as these (or others) for four weeks or more after a difficult event, or if the symptoms are especially troublesome/occasionally debilitating, you must consult a doctor immediately.

Security workers are at a very high risk of developing PTSD.Symptoms of PTSD can negatively affect all areas of your life, from your career to your relationships and even your ability to take a well-earned rest after a hard day.

If you think you may have PTSD, there are a number of confidential tests available online. Help is freely available – and there is no shame whatsoever in seeking it. PTSD symptoms are treatable. Peace of mind is available.

For a more thorough examination of PTSD and how it applies to those who work in security, click here.


Robin Smith is the CEO of Working The Doors.


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