Secondary PTSD… What is it?

By Robert Rabe

Every critical incident has similarities, and differences.  In addition, every law enforcement officer’s reaction to an incident is individual as well.  Some officers go through the process of integrating the experience into their psyche without difficulty.  Usually this is with the help of others (peer group counseling, debriefings).  It is difficult to an effectively process an incident alone.  The family is one of the primary contacts for processing stressful incidents. But what can the family possibly do to help the officer?

The family can make sure that nothing is overlooked, especially, if medication is needed.  But sometimes medication or even intervention isn’t enough.  If the officer has become sullen and melancholy, they are a different person than before the critical incident and onset of PTSD.  At this point, the family becomes the secondary victim, and loyalty is tested.  The spouse and the children can suffer from secondary PTSD, which is not widely recognized or discussed in the mainstream media.  Secondary PTSD is based on the concept, that those who care for or interact with the primary individual who suffers from PTSD, can also become traumatized.

Secondary PTSD results from having knowledge of a critical incident experienced by another individual and the stress from helping.  Secondary PTSD is nearly identical to PTSD except the exposure to the critical incident is indirect. Today, many law enforcement personnel and their families suffer from PTSD and the battle that rages within. But the good news is that PTSD and Secondary PTSD are treatable.  The next step is helping families to learn the characteristics of Secondary PTSD and where to look for help.

Characteristics of Secondary PTSD Checklist:

(Dr. Oscar Ramirez)


  • Spouse fears what might happen the next time the officer has another fit of rage.
  • Spouse fears the officer will someday leave and abandon the family and never come back.
  • Spouse fears what might happen to the officer when they are not home.
  • Spouse fears “middle of the night surprises.”
  • Spouse feels “if just one more thing happens, I’ll lose my mind.”



  • Spouse regrets putting the children through the trauma
  • Spouse feels that it’s ‘my fault, if a were a better spouse, they would be different’
  • Spouse feels guilt for spending money on themselves or has a hard time just having fun
  • Spouse feels the guilty for just about everything



  • Spouse develops a sense of helplessness and hopelessness
  • Spouse is “tired of trying” set up for disappointment
  • Spouse demonstrates low self esteem – poor appearance, dirty home



  • Spouse feels that he/ she cannot be truly intimate with the officer and feels rejected.  They see the inability of the officer to share their emotions
  • Spouse feels rejected by friends who no longer come around.
  • Spouse feels rejected by the community because of lack of support or social interaction



  • Spouse, children and family may have few friends or be unable to relate to friends as they would like to because the officer has alienated them with his attitude
  • The few friends or family the spouse does have are tired of hearing about the troubles
  • The spouse may escape into a fantasy world, romantic fiction, TV, thoughts of affairs or engage in compulsive buying



  • The spouse may lean on children, friends or others too heavily for emotional support
  • Spouses experience a constant tension and anxiety because the spouse never knows what they will do next
  • Financial insecurity may add tremendous anxiety



  • Spouse denies having problems, after all, in spite of the circumstances, look how well I keep it together
  • Denial that God or anyone else can help the spouse or the officer.  “We have already tried everything and nothing has worked”.



  • Spouse takes out frustrations on children
  • Children may become severely withdrawn or demanding or agitated
  • Children may take overly responsible roles to try to balance the family
  • Children may try to find fulfillment in other worthy causes – church etc. leading to constant time pressure


In closing, resources need to be in place to help all involved: the officer, the spouse, and the children. When the unexpected occurs be as prepared as you can to respond with supports. It is crucial to recognize and deal with the situation and all potentially related problems that can multiply traumatic stress and create PTSD and Secondary PTSD.

Remember, it’s never too late to start preparing for the critical incident response.

Knowledge is power and it’s important to know what makes you stressed, and how you can deal with it, in a healthy way.

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