Wayne State University

Helping the helpers

Helping the helpers

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can have a debilitating effect on relationships, jobs and quality of life. Questions remain about whether certain people are more predisposed to PTSD and, if so, could be treated before trauma occurs. Christine Rabinak, assistant professor of pharmacy practice in the Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, has spent the last year working with first responders to find answers. 

“The limitation with current research is that we don’t know if the brain changes seen in those with PTSD are there prior to developing the condition or a result of it. We collect data after people have already experienced trauma and developed PTSD, so it’s very difficult to come up with a model,” said Rabinak. 

Working with first responders — in this case, student police officers at the Detroit Police Academy — allows researchers to identify a baseline period before trauma exposure occurs. First responders undergo psychological examination prior to enrollment, which alerts Rabinak’s team to any pre-existing psychological issues. The nature of first responders’ work also means that they will likely experience a traumatic event during their career, giving researchers a higher probability of observing PTSD. 

“You could do this with a variety of first-responder groups, such as paramedics or the fire department or military. We chose law enforcement because we were able to establish strong relationships with the Detroit Police Academy,” said Rabinak. “They were very interested and willing to participate. I think Detroit police are unique in that they’re probably going to encounter more critical incidents than your typical police officer in suburbia.”

Upon entering the academy a year ago, student police officers met with researchers, who monitored brain activity through an electroencephalogram (EEG) as the officers conducted various emotional exercises. The officers also filled out questionnaires discussing their anxiety levels and mental health. At six months and a year after they graduate from the academy and started their service in the field, they were brought back to participate in the same tests.  

The goal of the study is to look at changes in those test results as police officers encounter traumatic events during their career. Should an officer develop PTSD, researchers can look back for any biomarkers or protective behaviors that existed before traumatic exposure, which could identify a predisposition for PTSD.