A FREAK, split second accident in a relatively safe workplace has cost Michelle* nearly everything.
The mother-of-two lost her marriage, her livelihood and quite nearly her life, following the heavy knock to the head at her Hunter Valley workplace.
Michelle has never worked in the military or emergency services, but is battling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition estimated to affect about five to 10 per cent of the population at some point in their lives. PTSD and the workers’ compensation system have devastated her.
“It’s cost me my marriage, it’s cost me my house,” Michelle said.
“I’m now sleeping on a mattress in my mother’s house because I’m now a single mum, with two boys.
“My advice is never get injured at work. Once you are on workers’ compensation, they own you. Financially you have little choice.”
Michelle is sharing her story in the hope of raising awareness that PTSD can happen to anyone, and it is not just ongoing trauma for those working in emergency services or the military, or previous childhood trauma, that can lead to the condition.
Life was going along well for Michelle until she received a hard knock to the head at work in 2008.
“I thought I was dead that day, then I thought I was going to be left with severe brain damage,” she said. “It was scary.
“I lost cognitive skills, I couldn’t put a child’s 20-piece puzzle together.”
Doctors have likened her head injury to a king hit, she said.
“I went back to work and then realised I wasn’t right,” Michelle said. “I knew straight away something was wrong. Then I was diagnosed with PTSD.”
Michelle was dealt with under the workers’ compensation system, which initially lead to her return to work.
But she said she was so traumatised by the system, she fought against using it again when she relapsed.
“For seven years, I refused to go back on workers’ comp, so every time I had a relapse I would use sick leave, long service leave and when that was used up I'd take leave without pay,” she said.
“The system was so bad, it was actually more damaging than the PTSD at times.
“You are shuffled around to different medical practitioners, you’ve got to continue to rehash everything.
“The way it’s set up, it’s definitely detrimental to people that have a psychological injury.
“You’re dealing with people that don’t know anything about PTSD, you’re just a number.”
Michelle said the condition impacted on every aspect of her life.
“I’m angry that PTSD puts its fingers into everything, every part of your life gets affected by it,” she said. “Your children get affected.
“In 2015 I had a major relapse and had no choice but to go back on workers’ comp,” she said.
“The last interrogation I had from a so-called top of his field psychiatrist said ‘surely a head injury isn't enough to cause PTSD’. That was in 2016.
“So here I am thinking well what's wrong with me then because I was diagnosed eight years ago and have been receiving consistent therapy from a psychologist for past eight years.”
The condition has crippled her financially as well.
“The PTSD has resulted in massive changes in my life. My marriage broke down. I lost my house. Now my career is ruined.
“PTSD is real and it can happen to anyone. It's like being on an emotional roller-coaster that you can't get off. A relapse can have you hanging by a thread. Some days you curl up in a cocoon and just want to hide from the world.”
Michelle said it was difficult for people to understand the condition.
“I've lost friends, very close friends, because they don't get it,” she said. “Even family don't get it.
“You don't really know what it's like unless you had it or have it.
“I won't give up though. I'm doing everything in my power to manage PTSD, which is extremely difficult when you are on workers’ compensation.”
Her criticism of the workers’ compensation system has been echoed by PTSD sufferers in the emergency services sector, and the medical professionals who treat them.
Belmont psychiatrist Russell Hinton has previously raised concerns about the “broken” workers' compensation system.
“The workers' compensation scheme is in need of a major overhaul,” Dr Hinton said.
“I think it fails a great many patients.”
Dr Hinton said PTSD could most definitely result from a single incident.
“There are three broad groups of patients with PTSD; those who have endured childhood trauma plus or minus adulthood trauma; those who have had a largely trauma free childhood and then get traumatised once as adults; and those who have been traumatised repeatedly in their line of work such as in the emergency services and military,” Dr Hinton said.
“Of course these groups do, at times, overlap.”
Michelle is hopeful she may be able to return to the job she loved one day.
“I have been told there's work available for me,” she said. “When is the big question.
“In the meantime I'm left financially ruined and hoping things get better, not for my sake but for the sake of my two boys.”
The first parliamentary review of the NSW workers’ compensation system is expected to report back early this year.
* Name was changed
“My advice is never get injured at work. Once you are on workers’ compensation, they own you. Financially you have little choice.”Michelle, PTSD sufferer