Fireworks in the sky, chaos in the mind

As the Moreton Bay region expanded rapidly in the 1960s, Kate Smith’s grandfather was fortunate enough to secure a house on a hill for a bargain price.

The house had a back room with views which made it perfect for gathering to watch fireworks – whether they be fireworks at the Ekka or launched from north Brisbane’s various sports grounds and suburban fetes.

Kate Smith

Kate Smith

From childhood, some of Kate’s fondest memories stemmed from that particular room, extended family huddled together as the sky exploded in a spectacular array of colours.

“It was only a few years before his death that Grandad confessed he couldn’t stand fireworks, and the same fond memories for us had been moments which triggered fear inside of him,” Lawnton resident Kate says.

“He revealed he would often retreat to the lounge room with the dog to watch TV instead, so we wouldn’t notice he was rattled.

“It’s so sad to think this incredibly stoic, tough man lived most of his life with this secret he felt he couldn’t share with those who loved him so much.

“He put everybody else’s happiness ahead of his own, when I’m sure all of us would have gladly traded those times for knowing he was okay.”

The exploding fireworks vividly reminded Kate’s grandfather of living in the English cities of London and Hull as surrounding neighbourhoods were bombed in the Second World War.

They reminded him of the threat of torpedoes around him as he sailed the Arctic Ocean and North Sea as a teenager serving in the Royal Navy.

The fireworks that enraptured the rest of his family brought back memories of those times his warship provided covering fire as it accompanied landings in northern Europe where lives were lost by the thousands.

Each Anzac Day this same man would stand proudly in his blazer and beret with a chest full of medals, but inside he still suffered from incidents that were 70 years in the past.

“But you know, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is not something which is confined to older people or war veterans,” Mrs Smith says.

“Over time I have come to know there are other, much younger family members and friends who have been diagnosed with PTSD, whether that’s a result of an accident, their childhood or other traumatic experiences.

“The lesson I learnt from Grandad is to be mindful what others might be enduring, address it early, and seek the correct treatment – otherwise it might be decades of joy sacrificed.”

Kate as a child with her grandfather, Percy.

Kate as a child with her grandfather, Percy.

Kate as a child with her grandfather, Percy.

Anzac Day holds great importance for the family.

Anzac Day holds great importance for the family.

Percy wore his naval uniform on his wedding day.

Percy wore his naval uniform on his wedding day.

Percy, pictured here in uniform with wife Mary, sailed the Arctic Ocean and North Sea as a teenager serving in the Royal Navy.

Percy, pictured here in uniform with wife Mary, sailed the Arctic Ocean and North Sea as a teenager serving in the Royal Navy.

HMAS Obedient, aboard which Percy served.

HMAS Obedient, aboard which Percy served.

Percy's with his medals.

Percy's with his medals.

A multimillion-dollar national PTSD Centre is set to be formed at the University of the Sunshine Coast’s Thompson Institute, following an allocation of $8.3 million in the most recent federal budget, and $6 million from local philanthropists Roy and Nola Thompson.

The Thompson Institute integrates world-class research, clinical services, and education under one roof, allowing rapid translation of the latest mental health findings.

Institute Director Professor Jim Lagopoulos says PTSD is not always immediately apparent and can creep up on some people over time.

“Symptoms can start mild and people don’t think much of it,” Professor Lagopoulos says.

“It might commence as a few sleepless nights, a mood dysregulation, feeling sadder than usual.

“If those signs last more than three months it is chronic and can be a lot harder to treat by the time the person reaches out for help.”

Professor Lagopoulos says the current prevalence of PTSD in Australian society is around eight per cent of the broader population.

That figure is doubled for people working as front-line responders such as ambulance officers, paramedics, firefighters and military personnel. Indeed, in particularly trying circumstance the rate of PTSD can be 20 percent for particular professions.

“While a lot of things are still unknown about PTSD, one thing we do know is that trauma has a cumulative effect,” Professor Lagopoulos says.

“If you see or experience traumatic events on a regular basis – say as an ambulance officer attending five or six traumatic events in a shift – it has a negative impact on the function of the brain. That’s why we see this concentration in certain occupations.

“What is also true, however, is that PTSD can be incredibly individualistic. Sometimes a person involved in a car accident might not suffer significant trauma, but a person walking on the other side of the road in the distance might witness the accident and develop PTSD.

“Something which isn’t widely understood is that traumatic incidents actually result in the loss of brain cells in particular regions of the brain.

“One of the key things we are looking at in our research – and where we are confident of finding answers – is ways to promote the regeneration of cells in the affected areas of the brain.”

Low-dose ketamine has been a particularly promising avenue of investigation.

HHistorically used as an anaesthetic, ketamine engages a specific brain receptor which has subsequent positive effects on cell regeneration and ultimately cerebral processing.

Participants have reported life-changing responses and negligible side effects.

One of the researchers pursuing the low-dose ketamine avenue at the Thompson Institute is PhD student Cyrana Gallay, somebody with lived experience of the impacts of PTSD.

“I worked  with refugees and asylum seekers at a camp in Ghana, West Africa,” Ms Gallay says.

“People were treated for malaria, but not for mental health conditions.

“Many had fled war torn situations in Liberia and the Ivory Coast. All around me were neighbours and colleagues experiencing PTSD, but I didn’t fully recognise how the condition presented itself at that time.

Cyrana Gallay and Gracy Forsyth

Cyrana Gallay and Gracy Forsyth

“It’s a very meaningful passion of mine now to find low-cost, non-invasive treatments for PTSD, which offer low-side effect profiles and are highly effective.

“We will have a more peaceful society if people can get access to the help they need.”

The Sunshine Coast and Moreton Bay region might seem a world removed from a refugee camp situation, but the issue of PTSD has particular relevance.

“It’s such a beautiful, sun-filled, coastal place which feels like paradise to many,” Ms Gallay says.

“Sometimes, people processing a traumatic event may think that escaping to somewhere peaceful and serene will free them of their troubles. But that’s not necessarily the case.”

Thompson Institute colleague and fellow PhD candidate Grace Forsyth believes there are two important aspects to consider when assessing the communal impacts of PTSD.

Cyrana Gallay and Gracy Forsyth

Cyrana Gallay and Gracy Forsyth

Firstly, it is important to consider the myriad ways in which PTSD may impact someone’s daily life -- whether that be an inability to maintain a steady job, extreme avoidance of public places, problems regulating emotions, or difficulty forming close relationships.

Secondly, loved ones in immediate proximity to someone suffering from PTSD, are often highly impacted but don’t receive adequate information or resources for support.

“People might feel that parts of their personality have changed since experiencing a trauma, but not realize they have developed PTSD. If undiagnosed, those around them might start to question why they have become more aggressive or depressive, for instance,” Grace says.

“The impacts can range from that person no longer participating in their family or engaging with their community, to the economic consequences of a reduced workforce and an overloaded medical care system.”

“PTSD is very individualistic and there are consequences for us all.”

Aside from those involved in combat exposure and emergency situations, another often-unmentioned group with particular prevalence of PTSD is survivors of sexual assault.

The difficulty in treating PTSD is that negative thoughts can be initiated by all manner of stimuli, whether a response to any of the human senses, or recollection of incidents.

“Some people can have a reaction to crowded spaces or specific sounds, and I know of a firefighter whose PTSD was set off by the smell of smoke,” Ms Forsyth says.

Brain scans are an important tool for scientists researching PTSD.

Brain scans are an important tool for scientists researching PTSD.

“Those who have experienced war-time conflict might be triggered by a car backfiring or a similar noise that others might find innocuous.

“For that reason, we have to explore the neurobiology of PTSD and investigate novel inroads which have overarching application in a broad range of situations, rather than specific cases.”

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