Who Are First Responders?

First responders are trained professionals who are the first to arrive at an accident or emergency scene. Police officers, firefighters, paramedics, and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) are all considered first responders.

First responders’ daily responsibilities consist of sacrificing their own lives for the sake of others. Choosing to put your safety at risk as your profession is something only some are equipped for. Public health professionals undergo intense training and preparation before stepping out on the job; however, it doesn’t make it any easier.

First responder training can’t fully prepare them for the impact and lasting effect these situations will have on their overall well-being, which is why PTSD is so common in first responders. First responders tend to feel like they can’t show any signs of weakness on and off the job, which causes them to stuff their emotions rather than adequately handling them.

A SAMHSA article stated, “69 percent of EMS professionals have never had enough time to recover from traumatic events (Bentley et al., 2013). As a result, depression, stress and posttraumatic stress symptoms, suicidal ideation, and a host of other functional and relational conditions have been reported.” With such a high-demand job, first responders rarely have enough time to spend with their loved ones, let alone be able to recuperate and process their feelings after each shift.

What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder caused by traumatic events in someone’s life that left a lasting effect/impact on the individual. PTSD can last anywhere from months to years, triggering an emotional or physical response due to disturbing flashbacks.

Common Symptoms of PTSD

The symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are experienced differently by everyone. Just because someone has PTSD, it doesn’t require them to have experienced all the signs and symptoms.

The most common symptoms of PTSD may include:

  • Vivid flashbacks from the event
  • Having specific triggers that remind you of the event
  • Intrusive thoughts and images
  • Recurring nightmares
  • Increased irritability, feelings of sadness or anger
  • Insomnia or difficulty sleeping
  • Feeling on edge
  • Feelings of anxiety
  • Feeling depressive and/or experiencing suicidal thoughts or ideation
  • Difficulty concentrating and accomplishing tasks

While PTSD is ubiquitous in first responders and veterans, it is prevalent among all Americans in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, about 5 out of every 100 adults (or 5%) in the U.S. has PTSD in any given year. Women are more likely to develop PTSD than men. About 8 of every 100 women (or 8%) and 4 of every 100 men (or 4%) will have PTSD at some point in their life.

Why is PTSD Common in First Responders?

Due to the nature of their profession, emergency safety professionals are at high risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). First responders carry this expectation and responsibility of being the “hero” for everyone else and will do what they can to uphold this belief. Holding on to this expectation causes them to stuff their feelings while helping others handle their own. This creates an unhealthy emotional imbalance that becomes hard to cope with.

As unresolved feelings build up over time, emotional burdens do as well, affecting the individual and those closest to them. One of the most common symptoms of PTSD is avoidant behaviors—avoiding feelings and also situations, places, and things that trigger those unwanted feelings. Burying feelings and emotions might seem like an easy fix at the moment, but it will only cause mental damage in the long term. First responders often do this to keep their minds in check and focus on their work.

Processing trauma and the difficult emotions that come with it is not easy, especially for someone who doesn’t want to deal with it. To start the healing journey, one has to come face-to-face with what is triggering them and why they are being triggered. Treatment for PTSD walks the patient through a healing process that encourages full confrontation with their trauma. This helps them to best identify when and where their trauma began and the most efficient ways to manage it.

How to Treat PTSD

Ultimately, the most efficient way to treat PTSD is to undergo treatment options such as psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, or medication.

Psychotherapy takes a more in-depth approach to analyzing the patients’ emotions and motives regarding the severity of their situation. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of talk therapy that encourages patients to get in touch with negative emotions and responses associated with their trauma. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy guides the patient to fixate on traumatic memories while practicing eye movements. The most common medications for PTSD are paroxetine, fluoxetine, and sertraline—these are all selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) prescribed for depression, anxiety disorders, OCD, PTSD, and more.

While these are all efficient ways to treat PTSD, there are many other health practices and routines to assist throughout treatment, such as:

  • Practicing mindfulness
  • Deep breathing exercises
  • Practicing yoga and meditation
  • Music therapy
  • Aromatherapy
  • Self-soothing
  • Daily affirmations
  • Journaling, reading, or writing
  • Daily exercise and movement
  • Spending time in the outdoors
  • Attending support groups
  • Spending time with friends

There are numerous ways to cope with PTSD alongside different types of therapy and medications. Prioritizing your well-being by practicing self-soothing activities is crucial to helping manage triggers and PTSD symptoms.

Online Resources for First Responders

  • The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress provides online support for all first responders and public health workers.
  • Safe Call Now is an emergency hotline providing support for all emergency responders and their family members from other emergency responders.
  • The 2nd Alarm ProjectTM is a nonprofit organization that provides firsthand counseling and support for emergency responders.
  • Responder Rel8 is an app that promotes anonymous communication for all first responders in need of guidance or general support.

If you’re struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), you are not alone. You can seek support and treatment today.