By Joseph Hunter, M.A.
The work of a first responder is immensely rewarding. Firefighters can save people from burning homes and buildings. Police officers protect their communities from violence. And EMTs and nurses help people when sick or injured.
But being a first responder also comes with many challenges. They work long hours, see humanity at its worst, and even put their lives in danger – all to help others. So, who is helping our heroes when they are the ones who need help?
Experiencing trauma day in and day out without a healthy way to cope is exhausting, stressful and can lead to burnout. Because of this, it is imperative that employers do everything they can to help and protect the mental health of first responders.
Signs of Trouble
Because of the constant demands of their jobs, first responders experience trauma that can lead to conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Signs of PTSD in first responders include:
- Hyper arousal
- Intrusive and negative thoughts
- Re-experiencing traumatic events
Another issue that faces first responders because of the stress and trauma of their jobs is the possibility of burnout? This is a top “career killer” for first responders, and the symptoms include:
- Sadness, depression or apathy
- Being easily frustrated
- Blaming of others
- Lacking feelings or empathy
- Feeling like alcohol and drugs will help
- Poor self-care
- Feelings of failure and loss
Reducing First Responder Stress and Burnout
While some levels of physical and emotional stress are unavoidable in their line of work, employers can help reduce first responder stress levels and potential burnout by doing the following:
- Providing proper training around how to manage trauma
- Educating for highly stressful situations they may encounter
- Preparing for the physical and mental toll the job will take on their bodies and minds
- Emphasizing the importance of seeking help for recovery when necessary and providing safe outlets for first responders to go to if they need support
Recovering from Trauma for First Responders
Employers can work on preparedness and help with their employee’s resiliency and recovery after experiencing traumatic events. Some examples of this include, but are not limited to:
- Training exercises such as incident response
- Educating first responders on crisis communication
- Psychological help and peer support when first responders are feeling overwhelmed
- Providing timely communication after an event
- Having a response plan for emergencies that lays out clear assignments and avoids confusion and chaos
Help After the Crisis
There is an extensive list of programs and ideas that employers can put into action in their workplace that will go a long way toward helping first responder mental health. These include:
- An employee-assistance program with providers who can help create a recovery plan. This can speed up recovery and work to prevent burnout and PTSD.
- A critical incident stress management program (CISM), which is a peer-led approach to crisis intervention. Sessions provide practical advice and educate first responders on the signs of stress.
- Anti-stigma campaigns in the workplace.
- Education for mental health providers to help them understand the first responder culture
- In-house peer support programs
- Flexible and collaborative return-to-work (RTW) processes after experiencing a traumatic or physical event
Seeking Help as a First Responder After Trauma
First responders have lived in a culture where they are supposed to be invincible. Fortunately, this mentality is beginning to shift and it’s slowly becoming more acceptable to seek help without feeling weak or ashamed. That help should be easily accessible in the workplace. If you are experiencing symptoms of PTSD or signs of burnout, reach out and get the assistance you need from your employer. If you’re suffering from PTSD and have turned to substance use to cope, the First Responder Wellness Program can help you overcome your alcohol or drug use, misuse and the trauma that has been haunting you.
- Coping with a disaster or traumatic event. (accessed Sept 5, 2018). http://www.emergency.cdc.gov.
If you, someone you love or someone you know needs help, call:
Safe Call Now: 24 Hour Confidential Hotline: 206-459-3020
For more information on the First Responders program: Click here
Or call Shannon Clairemont at 661-466-6352 or Vanessa Stapleton at 304-651-3008