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by Chandra Brandt, MA, LPC, NCC

The pride that comes with helping and protecting others should be fulfilling enough to continue work that is often times stressful and dangerous, right? We often feel that way when entering jobs in fields such as law enforcement, firefighting, emergency services, the military, corrections and emergency room settings. However, these professionals often find rather quickly, or over time, that their work experiences can leave them feeling physically and mentally depleted. In many cases, the protectors themselves end up in crisis, ranging from on-the-job accidents and injuries to suicidality related to direct and indirect trauma that they’ve seen. While many of us in the general population might view First Responders as heroes, or are thankful that they’ve stepped forward to place themselves in such difficult careers, they themselves might feel a great deal of despair.

First Responders are confronted with serious issues on a daily basis which can consist of dealing with criminal activity (homicide, domestic violence, illicit substances), witnessing severe injury or death to others, personal risk of injury or death to themselves, loss of coworkers, exposure to communicable diseases or hazardous chemicals, handling unruly citizens, high work-loads and shift work, and criticism in the media, all while potentially dealing with little support from their administrations or community. First Responders are trained to project strength and stoicism, which does not mean that they aren’t experiencing painful thoughts or emotions under the surface of a brave face.

Being in these stressful environments on a consistent basis can have a dire impact on one’s mental health. A First Responder’s ability to function in their work role, social/family life may decrease significantly, putting their physical and emotional safety at an even greater risk.
It is not uncommon for First Responders to experience cumulative stress, vicarious trauma, exhaustion, anger, depression, anxiety, PTSD or suicidal thoughts and behavior. They may engage in unhealthy coping skills to include isolation, overworking, substance use or other risky behavior. Unsurprisingly, family members of first responders can experience these same symptoms and mirror similar, unhealthy coping behaviors. Family members may feel isolated from their First Responder or might be confused about the changes they are witnessing in their loved one’s personality or behavior.

In recent years, more focus has been placed on providing greater levels of support to First Responders and their families, as increasing suicide rates in these fields has become an epidemic. A shift in mindset has begun to replace the old stigma that seeking mental health support is a weakness. Being proactive about mental health management and self-care is now being normalized and encouraged. Many administrations are adopting programs such as employee wellness and peer support. Some counseling programs offer services at a discounted rate for First Responders. Evidence-based treatments (such as CBT, DBT and ACT) have proven to be effective for treating various mental health issues that can result from these high stress jobs. Interventions often include mindfulness practices, deep breathing/relaxation techniques, identifying triggers to trauma responses and related coping skills to help an individual re-ground themselves, and learning intrapersonal and interpersonal effectiveness. It is important that First Responders are aware that outpatient and inpatient mental health counseling, along with medication management services are available to them and can often be located fairly easily within their communities.

If you are a First Responder or a First Responder family member and the information above seems to resonate with your experience, consider reaching out to a therapist for additional support and resources!