First Responder Therapy: Helping Heroes Through Trauma

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First Responder Therapy

First responders have difficult jobs. Police officers regularly face intense, life-threatening scenarios. Firefighters risk their lives every time they run into a burning building. And paramedics provide emergency care in even the most gruesome scenarios. With so many stressful hazards thrown into a single shift, many of these individuals inquire about first responder therapy. 

And that’s a good thing. Mental, emotional, and physical trauma are common among first responders, and seeking therapy is a critical step in maintaining a happy, healthy life both on and off the job. 

Read on to learn about trauma therapy for first responders!

Table of Contents
Trauma In First Responders
5 Most Common Reasons for First Responder Therapy
Case Studies for First Responder Therapy
Schedule Therapy for Pittsburgh First Responders
Pittsburgh First Responder Therapists

Trauma in First Responders

Although we owe our safety to the community’s first responders, these brave individuals regularly experience trauma in the workforce. 

For many, it’s an adapt-or-get-out situation. 

After seeing so much horror on a daily basis, some first responders become jaded. Others develop a “thick skin” to help themselves cope. And others become self-described “jerks”—a consequence of sacrificing kindness to keep other people and events at a safe emotional distance.

Unfortunately, these coping mechanisms don’t shield first responders from mental health issues. Some heartbreaking statistics:

  • Police officers and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.
  • 85% of first responders have experienced symptoms related to mental health conditions.
  • Depression and PTSD are up to 5 times more common in first responders.
  • Approximately 70% of first responders say mental health services are rarely or never utilized.
  • 40% of first responders fear being demoted or fired for seeking services
  • 57% of first responders fear negative repercussions for seeking help

Statistics on Trauma In First Responders

Unfortunately, trauma isn’t always accepted in the workplace—nor are these professionals always encouraged to seek treatment. The US military, for example, is notorious for rooting out soldiers experiencing (or who have experienced) mental health issues. Disqualifying mental health issues include:

  • Anxiety
  • PTSD
  • OCD
  • Drug or alcohol dependence
  • History of suicide attempt(s)

Although military personnel are allowed to seek treatment for certain problems, the military also has rules on the types of permissible treatments and the length of time individuals can seek treatment—which leads to some people receiving treatment in secret so they don’t get kicked out of the military. 

5 Most Common Reasons for First Responder Therapy

Here are some of the most common reasons Pittsburgh’s first responders seek us out for therapy: 

Most Common Reasons We See First Responders For Therapy

1. PTSD

PTSD, shorthand for post-traumatic stress disorder, is when a person has difficulty mentally or emotionally recovering from the experience of a terrifying event. PTSD symptoms can include:

  • Nightmares
  • Flashbacks
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Avoidance of certain scenarios that could trigger memories of the trauma
  • Physical sensations like pain, sweating, nausea, and trembling

Roughly 1 in 3 first responders develop PTSD at some point during or after their career, according to research from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Throughout the general population, meanwhile, PTSD occurs in about 1 in 5 people.

For active first responders, PTSD can become a debilitating distraction that makes it difficult to work and maintain relationships. For retired first responders, PTSD can make it challenging to maintain relationships and function as usual. 

2. Traumatic Injuries

Compared to your typical adult in the workforce, first responders are much more likely to experience on-the-job injuries. 

While tragedies like plane crashes and wildfires are obvious examples of how threatening a first responder’s job can be, daily tasks can be just as debilitating. 

Improperly lifting a stretcher can harm a paramedic’s back. An errant swing of a firefighter’s ax can permanently scar a co-worker. And running after a suspect can open a cop up to fall hazards, fist fights, or even gunfire. 

As we’ll discuss later, some injuries can be incredibly life-altering. And when you suddenly lose a limb or become paralyzed, there’s plenty you’ll need to mentally and emotionally process. 

3. Depression

Because of the intense stress levels and harrowing experiences first responders endure, depression levels are twice as high in these professionals than among typical workers. In fact, some estimates show 30% of first responders experience behavioral health issues like depression, while only 20% of the general population experience similar issues. 

As an extension of that, between 125 and 300 law enforcement officers die by suicide each year, often because they lack the mental health resources to move beyond their traumas. 

4. Drug And Alcohol Abuse

First responders are up to twice as likely to experience drug and alcohol dependence or use than the rest of the population. 

In fact, at least one study found the incidence of alcohol dependence among police officers was 5%, whereas the incidence was only 3.33% among the general population. 

The reasons for these statistics are varied. Stress is a major factor, but first responders who work night shifts may also lack a steady supply of serotonin from a lack of sunlight. First responders may also experience a general loss of enjoyment in daily life, which could also lead them to experimenting with drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism. 

5. Problems With Relationships

First responders may also struggle in their relationships with family members, especially their spouse and children, as well as friends. 

After a traumatic event or even an intensely stressful day, first responders may struggle to connect with their loved ones. Over time, this struggle can compound into severe relationship issues. 

As an extension of that, we sometimes see spouses of first responders who have trouble managing the stress of having a first responder spouse. As difficult as being a first responder can be, being part of their immediate family can be similarly worrisome and stressful. 

Case Studies of First Responder Therapy

Here are a couple of scenarios we’ve faced while working with first responder traumas:

First Responder Therapy Case Study 1: Managing Anger In the Workplace

We once worked with a nurse practitioner who was so enraged by the circumstances of a patient, they were contemplating murder. 

It stemmed from a horrifying child abuse case that the nurse practitioner worked on. A single mother didn’t want her baby anymore, so she blew heroin smoke into the baby’s face until the young girl was unconscious. Eventually, the baby was rushed to the hospital, where the medical staff initially believed she was dead. After reviving her, the baby was in critical condition, and she eventually began suffering from approximately 600 seizures per day.

In working with this baby, the nurse practitioner became enraged. And with access to the baby’s medical files, he knew exactly where the family lived. He felt an incredible temptation to go home, pick up his gun, and travel to the baby’s home to murder the mother and father to avenge the innocent baby. 

Realizing the situation, the nurse practitioner reached out for therapy. Of course, he never committed murder, and we worked with him to move beyond the trauma of this heartbreaking medical case. In addition, we examined some of the most difficult cases—including the traumas he experienced early in his career as a young EMT.

Eventually, we arrived at the conclusion that, for his mental health, he needed to transition out of emergency medicine. Together, we helped him develop a plan for finding a new, lower-stress job—where he is now much happier! 

First Responder Therapy Case Study 2: Redefining ‘Identity’ After A Traumatic Brain Injury

We once worked with a former police officer who suffered traumatic brain injury (TBI) in a terrible accident. 

She’d been traveling down her street when she saw smoke billowing out of a nearby house. She rushed in, hurried the family out of the home, and retreated to a safe area. 

After an inspection from the responding EMT team, they determined she’d inhaled smoke during the rescue, and they chose to transport her to the hospital for additional treatment. Unfortunately, one of the EMTs failed to properly buckle her and her stretcher into place. When the ambulance was involved in a severe collision, the police officer was thrown from the stretcher, hitting her head and leading to a TBI. 

The TBI dramatically changed her personality, cognitive function, and even some of her physical function. These sudden changes plagued her; she had been a healthy, 39-year-old woman. Now, she was someone she didn’t recognize. 

Through our sessions together, we helped her move beyond the trauma while reclaiming her identity in her body and mind. 

Schedule Therapy for Pittsburgh First Responders

The therapists at My Wellness Center are ready to help first responders! Contact us to learn about insurance options or to schedule an appointment. 

Pittsburgh First Responder Therapists

Book one of our experienced therapists for first responder therapy: 

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