“Society has long recognized the physical demands of first responders; however, what is less formally acknowledged are the negative psychological outcomes,” wrote Bowers, Beidel, and Marks in Mental Health Intervention and Treatment of First Responders and Emergency Workers (2019). “Most notable among these negative mental health consequences is posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The hallmark of a PTSD diagnosis is that symptoms result from exposure to a traumatic event. Traumatic events are those that include exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). First responders encounter these traumatic events repeatedly with high frequency as a function of their daily job requirements (Hartley, Violanti, Sarkisian, Andrew, & Burchfiel, 2013; Marmar et al., 2006).”
Unprocessed trauma can have serious mental health consequences. If undiagnosed and untreated, posttraumatic stress, depression, and anxiety may lead to attempts at self-medication with drugs and alcohol which does not alleviate the underlying conditions but worsens them. First responders are often exposed to severe trauma at a relatively young age early in their careers. At the same time, they frequently operate in a work culture where open expressions of anxiety and grief as perceived as weakness—even by themselves.
Repeatedly responding to house fires, scenes of homicides, domestic violence, horrific traffic accidents, drug overdoses, or accidental deaths—especially of children has a significant psychological impact that may create feelings of sadness, grief, irritability, and mood swings (i.e. symptoms of trauma or depression). Being exposed to similarly traumatizing events over and over may eventually also lead to compassion fatigue (CF).
“Research indicates that CF is made up of two main components: burnout and secondary traumatic stress,” according to a fact sheet published by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). “When experiencing burnout, you may feel exhausted and overwhelmed, like nothing you do will help make the situation better. For some responders, the negative effects of this work can make them feel like the trauma of the people they are helping is happening to them or the people they love. This is called secondary traumatic stress. When these feelings go on for a long time, they can develop into ‘vicarious trauma.’ This type of trauma is rare but can be so distressing that the way a person views the world changes for the worse.”
To avoid compassion fatigue, SAMHSA recommends focusing on “four core components of resilience: adequate sleep, good nutrition, regular physical activity, and active relaxation (e.g., yoga or meditation).” Unfortunately, many first responders are unaware of this kind of resiliency training and attempt to deal with their PTSD and compassion fatigue with self-medicating substances, most often alcohol. Winding down with a drink is widely perceived as part of the work culture. An inability to handle the stress of the job is often seen as weakness. Like their colleagues in the military, some law enforcement officers, firefighters, and other first responders are prepared to talk about the stress and trauma they are exposed to while being reluctant to view any substance misuse as a problem.
If substance misuse results in addiction, and there are co-occurring mental health concerns, the best long-term outcomes fr clients take place when these conditions are treated together.
Recovery Ways is dually licensed to treat mental health and addiction. Our highly qualified treatment team includes two addiction psychiatrists, an affiliated family doctor, and therapists with master’s degrees. We offer 24-hour nursing, on-site detox, and a full continuum of care.
Recovery Ways therapists are committed to supporting the specific needs of first responders and will develop an individualized treatment plan to address the particular underlying conditions of each first responder client we serve. Our team utilizes an array of trauma therapies that include mind-body-bridging (a neuro-feedback modality), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), an evidence-based trauma therapy, in addition to cognitive-behavioral therapies, specific to first responders. Our Recovery Ways team is committed to giving them the most solid foundation possible to begin their experience of sustained, supported recovery.