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Destigmatizing Mental Health Treatment in First Responders

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

A topic often kept in silence is the impact a first responder’s duties have both on their mental health and those closest to them. This is most likely attributed to the stigma surrounding the receipt of mental health treatment and the possibility of being diagnosed with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In this feature, we shed light on a topic often kept in darkness - society’s misunderstanding and misperception of PTSD. This article seeks to further destigmatize mental health treatment for PTSD by addressing myths surrounding the topic and by providing a forum for us to understand the impact of vicarious trauma. An increase in awareness is paramount in our fight to provide first responders with the treatment necessary to continue functioning at a high level in a high stress environment.

It is through awareness that we can take a proactive approach to limit the discomfort, pain, and other unhealthy coping mechanisms (e.g. isolation, substance use, anger, etc.) some first-responders use as a means to cope. The assistance of a trained mental health professional is essential in treating PTSD.

What is Vicarious Trauma and PTSD?

According to the Department of Justice Office for Victims of Crime vicarious trauma is an occupational challenge for people working and volunteering in the field of victim services, law enforcement, fire services, medical services, and other allied professions due to their continued exposure to victims of trauma and violence. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary or dangerous event. As of 2012, the rate of PTSD among first responders was 14.6% (7.3% of firefighters, 4.7% of law enforcement officers, and 13.5% of other rescue team members). These statistics demonstrate that a first responder’s duties have a significant effect on their overall mental health. Thus, it is imperative that we normalize treatment for those individuals who continually place themselves in harm's way for the safety of our community.

First Responders can struggle with PTSD

First responders' exposure to repeated trauma, job stress, lack of sleep, physical demands of employment, a department’s lack of resources, and working long hours or multiple jobs may have a significant impact on their mental health according to the Journal of Emergency Medical Services (2020). These experiences do not necessarily indicate a diagnosis of PTSD, however, continually experiencing these issues on a daily basis may lead to unhealthy ways of coping, such as substance use disorders, angry outbursts, interpersonal relationship problems, and domestic violence. If you or someone close to you is a first responder, the signs of vicarious trauma and PTSD are often hidden because of an underlying fear of being judged or viewed as weak. The stigmatization of PTSD in first responders has led many to believe that strength is shown by addressing the issue without the aid of a trained professional; however, PTSD treatment under the direction of a trained mental health professional has been shown to be highly effective. It's okay to ask for help

Let’s begin to take the necessary steps to normalize the psychological wellbeing of all and understand the silent crisis which exists among our first responders who suffer alone as a result of this stigma. Additionally, the community of retired first responders are experiencing loss of identify as they transition into retirement, and with additional free time most often begin to have “greater levels of symptomology, with prevalence estimates of post traumatic stress disorder at 18%, depression at 18% and heavy drinking at 7%” according to JEMS (2020). Make that call, or send that text.

More questions? If you or somone you love is struggling, contact Konick and Associates (630-206-4060) to schedule a consultation with one of our skilled therapists.


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