First Responders face the unique challenge of experiencing danger, chaos, and tragedy on close to a daily basis. For as much training as these professionals go through, we tend to forget that they’re still human. Over time, exposure to such stress can take a toll on the mental and physical health of first responders. In a previous blog post, we underlined the basics when it comes to post-traumatic stress disorder and first responders. This post, however, will look even more into the psychological impact and how first responders can benefit from treatment.

There’s no question that PTSD needs to be taken seriously. If you think that you or a first responder that you know isn’t acting like himself/herself, see if they’re showing any of the following symptoms:

  • Flashbacks, nightmares, and recurring thoughts
  • Emotional numbness
  • Extreme worry, guilt, anger, or hopelessness
  • Avoidance of people, places, or things that drum up reminders of the trauma
  • Loss of interest in things
  • Feeling anxious, on edge or jump, and startling easily
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Problems with alcohol, drugs or food

Why First Responders Struggle to Seek Help

Take a moment to consider that first responders generally operate in a culture that does everything possible to uphold an image of invincibility. According to this article by David Sack of Psychology Today, “admitting that there are cracks in the armor can seem not only counterproductive but dangerous - a way of undermining the confidence necessary to do the job effectively and safely.” It makes sense when you think about the prototypical first responder who more than likely evokes strength and toughness. Sack goes on to mention that there’s a fear of a first responder admitting that they’re struggling, which could be seen by others that they’re just not up to the job.

Though society is starting to take mental health more seriously, there are still plenty of folks who stereotype those with mental health problems as somehow weaker or defective, occasionally leading to prejudice and discrimination. Thankfully, the first responder community is realizing its responsibility to be more proactive regarding the mental health of its members.

Where Treatment Comes Into Play

Trauma can lead to a first responder feeling lost and frustrated. You may feel that the easiest thing to do is to ignore the fact that you’re struggling and allow the problem to become more difficult to manage. Should you let it persist even longer without seeking professional help, it can lead to addictive habits with drugs or alcohol.

Sack explains that specialized, confidential treatment for first responders exists. See below for the benefits of treatment.

  • You will realize that you aren’t alone - Nearly one in five people undergo a mental health issue in any given year. Not surprisingly, first responders are at higher risk with the stressors they face.
  • Trauma is a normal human response to an abnormal situation - How strange would it be if you had no negative reaction to risking your life and seeing terrible things happen to people every day, while also being powerless at times to help? Sack says that having this mindset allows you to avoid the thought of “what’s wrong with me?”
  • Trauma is better understood as an injury to the brain as opposed to an illness - As previously mentioned, an untreated stress injury may lead to severe depression and anxiety down the road.
  • Each of us can build resilience to trauma - That may not seem very realistic, but it’s definitely achievable by working on your connections with others. Sack recommends building a circle of trust and connections of people that will help you cope with experiences that can lead to trauma. It’s also imperative to learn how to effectively manage feelings, improve communication rather than bottle up emotions, and develop more realistic ways of viewing yourself.

As a first responder getting help, there’s a good chance that you’re helping someone else who is suffering. They will see that it’s ok for them to get help, too.

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