Professor Alexander McFarlane is the Head of the University of Adelaide Centre for Traumatic Stress Studies and senior adviser in Psychiatry to the Australian Defence Force.
Professor McFarlane has a long history of advising the Australian Defence Force and holds the rank of Group Captain in the RAAF specialist reserve. He is interested in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in relation to disaster victims, military personnel and civilian accidents. His research focuses on the epidemiology and longitudinal course of PTSD as well as the neuro-imaging of the cognitive deficits in this disorder.
In his keynote address to the Many Paths, One Purpose Expert Forum hosted by the Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health on 12 August 2011, Professor Alexander McFarlane will overview the history of traumatic stress in the defence forces and how research in this area can be applied to other professions. He will trace changes in our understanding and lessons learnt since PTSD was first recognised as part of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1980. Recently he said:
“In every major conflict we take significant steps forward in our knowledge, but this knowledge can get lost between conflicts. A whole body of academic work has blossomed as a result of having a standard definition of PTSD. The lessons are being learned – and held on to.”
Professor McFarlane also contends that the healthy levels of public scrutiny of measures taken to protect military servants should be applied to other organisations that protect the community such as Police, Fire and Ambulance officers.
His presentation will also tackle the notion of individual accountability in people suffering from PTSD, arguing that a focus on individual levels of vulnerability to conditions associated with the disorder can be a distraction from more important issues:
“The evidence from epidemiology is that accumulated trauma is very bad for our mental health, and that the more trauma people are exposed to, the greater the possibility that they will become symptomatic. Even the healthiest individuals will become unwell when exposed to enough trauma.”
Professor McFarlane will cite military research that highlights the need for a broader interpretation of trauma:
“For military populations, the lexicon of PTSD can be limiting. For example, major depressive disorders were far more common than PTSD in veterans of the first Gulf War. There’s also the profound underlying neurobiology of these different disorders and their links to physical conditions. The story of what happens to people who experience trauma often goes beyond what we understand as PTSD.”
For further information on the ACPMH Expert Forum, Many Paths One Purpose, click here.