August 29, 2022
Caring for Our Heroes: PTSD Treatment for First Responders
Written by Rachel Eddins
Stories about first responders tend to lack nuance. Of course, their heroics are often enough of a tale. But we seem to forget that we’re not talking about big-screen superheroes. They are human beings with human emotions. With that in mind, take a moment to ponder what it’s like to be the ones running toward a crisis. What kind of emotional toll can such a career take?
First responders bear witness to traumatic events practically on a daily basis. Traumatic events can negatively impact us, whether we are the victim or the witness. Either way, it can result in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
A Few Numbers to Ponder
- Over 80 percent of first responders regularly experience traumatic events while working.
- The percentage of first responders who develop mental health issues like PTSD is 30 percent—10 percent higher than the general population.
- As many as 25 percent of firefighters and 35 percent of law enforcement officers currently suffer from PTSD.
- Emergency Medical Services (EMS) workers are 1.39 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population.
- In 2020, more police officers died by suicide than in the line of duty.
You may justifiably call them heroes, but the price they pay each day is probably far higher than you imagine.
What Trauma Does to First Responders
When struggling with trauma, a first responder will likely experience many of the classic PTSD symptoms, e.g.:
- Nightmares, flashbacks, and intrusive thoughts
- Social isolation and withdrawal
- Avoidance of anything that reminds them of the traumatic event or events
- Mood swings
- Sleep disturbances
But first responders also must deal with some unique outcomes.
These may include:
- Intense guilt over all the victims they “should” have saved
- Not believing they make a difference
- Losing faith in their career and becoming depressed as a result
The list goes on, but surely you can see that this particular demographic experiences trauma in a very distinct way. Accordingly, treating PTSD in first responders requires some specific insights and approaches.
Addressing PTSD in First Responders
It begins by encouraging them to accept. You see, when your job title is “hero,” you are not supposed to show weakness, fear, or shame. Therefore, the first responder is very, very likely to downplay or even hide symptoms. Such a delay can dramatically complicate your PTSD and its treatment. This is why counseling is so essential for workers who are essential.
Other systemic changes can be crucial. First of all, the stigmas must be challenged.
In studies, 8 in 10 first responders stated that they’d ask for more on-site mental health resources but only if a co-worker brought it up first.
This perception that “tough” people just power through is dangerous. Scroll back up and read the suicide statistics. The culture has to change.
PTSD Treatment for First Responders
With all of the above context in mind, there is still the important matter of treating the high number of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder cases. A qualified therapist is one with the proper blend of:
- Comprehending the particular circumstances of life as a first responder
- Having solid experience working with clients struggling with PTSD
Once you find such a therapist, your treatment will focus on skills, outcomes, and goals like:
- Getting unstuck
- Developing coping skills and stress management skills
- Creating connections, safely connecting with yourself and others, and feeling less alone
- Healing your body
- Feeling solid and grounded
- Managing feelings of guilt and shame
- Regulating thoughts and emotions
- Reducing anxiety
If you or someone you know has endured a traumatic experience, it is important that you reach out for help.
5 Ways to Help First Responders Prevent PTSD
Choosing a career as a first responder brings with it plenty of responsibility. The first responder experiences many rewarding moments. However, they also face non-stop challenges. They put themselves at risk while regularly witnessing severe human suffering.
The decisions they make often qualify as life-and-death.
All of this (and more) increases their chances of experiencing trauma.
Fortunately, there are steps a first responder can take to help prevent Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from developing. It requires diligence and commitment, but these heroes can find the balance they need to help others—and themselves.
Red Flags to Watch For
- Either re-living traumatic events or being unable to remember details about them
- Choosing to isolate yourself
- Engaging in self-destructive behavior
- Changes in your normal sleep rhythms
- Unwilling to ask for help
- Blaming yourself for anything that happens on the job
- Thoughts of death, dying, or suicide
Any of the above can signify that the trauma is getting to you. This is the ideal time to create a plan that includes the elements listed below.
5 Ways to Help First Responders Prevent PTSD
1. Help Create a Supportive Work Environment
Perhaps the most essential step is to change the culture on the job. Here are a few suggestions:
- Get to know your co-workers. Share appreciation, concerns, feedback, and more.
- Actively look out for each other.
- Organize regular meetings to check in on the team. Make this environment welcoming and open.
- Lead by example. Speak up if a situation needs to be addressed or changed.
- Talk to any co-worker who appears to be approaching burnout.
- Involve your supervisors. Encourage them to be flexible with scheduling as it pertains to the mental health of the staff.
- Learn more about implementing programs like Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD). (Our office can provide these upon request).
2. Normalize Self-Love and Self-Awareness
Be a hero to yourself:
- Working more and working “harder” does not automatically mean working smarter, safer, and better.
- Get comfortable setting boundaries and saying “no.”
- Take breaks when you need them and let go of any guilt about it.
- The survivors and victims you help are important. However, their needs do not supersede your own needs.
3. Resist the Stigma
This falls under the category of self-love and self-awareness but needs its own section. None of the following realities qualify as a “weakness”:
- Needing help
- Taking a break
- Owning to feeling stressed, burnt-out, or depressed
Far too many people will not discuss their mental well-being. Be the hero who breaks that mold. You and all your co-workers will benefit.
4. Prioritize Family and Social Time
Don’t leave your family, friends, and social life to chance. Schedule events and gatherings that will provide balance. Avoid talking about the job when you’re not working.
5. Practice Daily Self-Care
Focus on the basics. They add up to help make you resilient in the face of crises. Your daily self-care regimen may include any or all of the following:
- Maintaining daily exercise and physical activity
- Keeping regular sleep patterns (within the context of your job, of course)
- Making healthy eating choices
- Allowing your body and mind enough time to rest and recover
- Developing stress management and relaxation techniques
Even a Hero Needs Help
Before you feel comfortable taking the above steps, you may need some private, one-on-one time with a skilled and experienced guide. Working with a therapist is the ideal way to begin the process of re-imagining how to best care for your mental and physical well-being. In a confidential setting, you’ll have the freedom and safety to explore what you feel and why. We would love to help make this happen for you.
Grounding & Self Soothing
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