When Jessica's husband comes home after a hard shift at work, he doesn't tell her everything that's happened in his day - and it's for her own good.

"I wouldn't have a sound mind, you know what I'm saying?" said Jessica, who asked that her real name not be used. Her husband has been a police officer for 10 years.

New Zealand has about 33,000 emergency responders - police, fire, ambulance, and military - and behind many of those people is a spouse working their way through the stresses and strains of supporting someone whose job can be a traumatic one.

In the first major piece of research on this subject in New Zealand, University of Auckland PhD student Stowe Alrutz surveyed close to 700 partners of emergency responders to look at how they were mentally affected by their loved-ones' occupations.

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Her online survey revealed 20-35 per cent of partners experience major symptoms of secondary traumatic stress (STS) and one in five were at risk of possible Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from it.

The research has prompted action amongst NZ police to provide more support for families.

Inspector Iain Saunders said families were now being invited to presentations on graduation day so they could learn about transferred stress.

Saunders, who was previously a senior psychologist in the police, said it was important to tell partners and families about the counselling services available to them through police if they were suffering secondary trauma.

"For partners, they just often hear the stress or see the torn uniform. It hasn't got some kind of concrete experience attached to it, so they're left guessing what might have happened."

Stowe Alrutz presented her research to the International Conference on Trauma and Mental Health in Jerusalem last week.
Stowe Alrutz presented her research to the International Conference on Trauma and Mental Health in Jerusalem last week.

Partners needed to lay down ground rules around "what level of detail is able to be shared".

"We encourage partners to make sure that they set those rules nice and early in a relationship around how they will bring up their daily stress if they're going to come home and be asked what happened while looking disheveled and maybe have some staining on their shirt or something," Saunders said.

"If they get a question, have some rules, boundaries around what that relationship can tolerate in terms of sharing, and also know that if it's not a completely open sharing relationship around what's bothering our people, that they have got to have other mechanisms to cope with that stress as well."

For partners, they just often hear the stress or see the torn uniform.

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Jessica said her husband would talk to her about some of the stresses he faced, but not everything.

"If you knew everything that's going on you'd be paranoid all the time," she said.

"When he discusses things it does hit home, and it does make you feel like 'oh my goodness, I had no idea this is going on'."

Her husband talked to friends in the force about the things he could not discuss at home, and similarly, Jessica made sure to talk to friends and family.

"You always worry about things but if you let them get to you a lot, it could take over your life . . . I've got to keep it together here."

Alrutz presented her research at a conference in Jerusalem last week.

The survey showed 84 per cent of partners said they never or rarely received information about managing stress from the organization.

You always worry about things but if you let them get to you a lot, it could take over your life . . . I've got to keep it together here.

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Two thirds of partners said they didn't regularly have someone to turn to for emotional and informational support specifically relating to their partner's work.

Alrutz said 21 per cent of survey-takers were at risk for possible PTSD from secondary trauma. She posed questions relating to hearing events that happened to the emergency responder which might invoke an intrusion, avoidance or arousal response in the partner.

"An example of one of the modified questions reads: My heart started pounding when I thought about my emergency responder's stressful experiences when I didn't intend to."

She said partners were surprised this meant they could be at risk of PTSD from secondary trauma.

A fire service spokesperson said the findings had been presented to them in February. They said the fire service provided support to families on a case-by-case basis.

"We are currently investigating how we can further enhance the quality of this support and expand these services," the spokesperson said.

Where to get help:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
Samaritans 0800 726 666
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.