By Liz Talago, Acadia Healthcare
A career as a first responder carries with it a unique set of rewards and challenges. Being a police officer, firefighter, EMT, or military member means that no two days on the job will ever be alike. First responders often witness some of the most difficult moments in the lives of the men and women in the communities they serve, and are charged to keep us safe at all costs.
Unpredictability is a defining feature of the career of a first responder. Unfortunately, so is frequently navigating trauma and tragedy. Sometimes with seemingly superhuman abilities, our first responders put themselves in harm’s way to care for others. But while unavoidable, those experiences can take a heavy toll on the police officers, firefighters, EMTs, and military members who serve our communities and country each day.
That’s why treatment for these first responders is becoming increasingly holistic, integrating therapies and remedies from diverse disciplines ranging from yoga to psychotherapy. As the stigma of seeking help in the aftermath of trauma continues to dissipate, our “community superheroes” have more and more tools for recovery at their disposal.
Trauma Takes a Toll
Sometimes, being exposed to certain forms of trauma (either chronic or acute) can result in the onset of symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, commonly known as PTSD. Not everyone who experiences trauma will develop symptoms of this condition. However, many first responders develop PTSD as a result of acute distress related to their experiences on the job or in service.
PTSD is more than just being upset or “shaken up.” It is a debilitating mental health condition frequently characterized by the following signs and symptoms:
- Experiencing flashbacks of the traumatic event
- Frequently feeling uneasy
- Sleep problems
- Unprovoked emotional outbursts
- Profound anxiety
- Oscillating moods
- Emotional detachment
Some individuals struggling with PTSD have known triggers (loud noises, bright lights, being approached suddenly or from behind, being in crowded or noisy places, etc.) that they can easily predict and describe to others. However, some triggers can be subtle and unpredictable, leaving affected individuals in a constant state of fear and worry as to when the next triggering event may manifest.
[Related: Police Officers Face Cumulative PTSD]
Many triggers are linked to the trauma in a straightforward manner (for example, loud noises may trigger a person who has endured combat). But, for some, a sensory shift or the slightest change in environment can result in them re-experiencing the trauma emotionally and psychologically and experiencing the symptoms listed above. If a first responder continues to be triggered in the aftermath of a traumatic event, it may be time to seek professional help.
Trauma-Informed Care for First Responders
There has been an increase in focus on the mental health needs of first responders in recent years, and fortunately there are now more options for specialized treatment than ever before. For example, the FBI National Academy Associates (FBINAA) has initiated an Officer Safety and Wellness program. Collaborating with Sierra Tucson, which works in partnership with Acadia Healthcare’s team of Treatment Placement Specialists (TPS), these partners assist first responders in finding trauma-focused treatment services.
However, even as more agencies and associations are taking steps to address mental health challenges, some first responders may still be resistant to seeking professional help, worrying that it could compromise their professional standing.
The good news is that with the support of a trauma-informed clinical team consisting of mental, behavioral, and physical healthcare professionals with specialized training and experience, first responders can better cope with, and potentially rid themselves of, symptoms of PTSD.
A Customized Support Team
Sometimes, other mental health concerns such as addiction, depression, and anxiety can accompany symptoms of PTSD. In such cases, finding a treatment center that is equipped to provide comprehensive care to address all symptoms is imperative.
This type of care model is completely customized to an individual’s needs and could include a variety of supports such as:
- Individual therapy
- Peer group work that is led by a therapist
- Daily yoga
- Movement groups
- Expressive arts
- Mindfulness training
- Medication management services with a psychiatrist
- Therapeutic recreation
- Equine therapy
- Resilience training
- Psychoeducational lectures
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
- Somatic Experiencing (SE)
- Somato-emotional release (SER) massage
First responders work tirelessly and selflessly to make a positive impact on the world around them. Now they must learn to accept support from traditional and non-traditional sources. This support can make the difference a first responder needs to thrive, both professionally and personally.
About the Author: Liz Talago is a writer with Acadia Healthcare and a subject matter expert in the areas of wellness and mental health. She earned her Master’s degree in counseling from the University of Montana, and has extensive experience supporting individuals and families as they navigate entering treatment and the eventual transition out of residential care. Outside of her work with Acadia, Liz enjoys travel, art, and spending time with her friends and family. To contact the author, email IPSauthor@apus.edu.