We often hear the phrases, “They run towards danger when everyone else is running away,” “They put their lives on the line every day,” “They saved my child’s life.” These statements are true of all first responders. They are the ones who devote their lives to saving others. They are the ones who are first to respond on scene to tragic accidents, assaults, murders, search and rescue operations, and other major crimes.
Once they have completed a call, they get another one and move on. There is no real time to process what they have seen, witnessed and heard. They take these images home with them and are left to process them on their own.
Many first responders find that over time they are not able to sleep or function normally through the day, and are haunted by nightmares and flashbacks.
Unfortunately there is still a large stigma around PTSD and first responders. Many do not feel that they have support of their colleagues or of their superiors and therefore they suffer in silence. They may feel that they are supposed to be strong and do not report the symptoms they are facing. They may feel like these symptoms will subside and they suppress their thoughts and feelings until they reach a boiling point. They may feel like if they come forward, they will be ridiculed or will lose their job.
Symptoms of PTSD include: flashbacks of the traumatic event, images of the event, feeling as if the trauma is recurring, shortness of breath, dizziness, sweating, heart palpitations, not being able to remember details of the event, feeling detached from people, feeling numb, unrelenting negative emotions and avoiding all reminders of the trauma (source: http://www.drugs.com/health-guide/post-traumatic-stress-disorder.html). Although these are the most common, symptoms will vary with each person and will present differently.
The difficulty with addressing PTSD in first responders is that they typically do not have these symptoms in relation to one single event. They face many traumatic events over the course of their career and therefore their symptoms may become compounded and more severe.
Many first responders may find themselves turning to drugs and alcohol to help numb their pain and help decrease the symptoms of PTSD. By using drugs and/or alcohol to help cope with their thoughts and feelings, they are not fully dealing with and facing the things they have seen throughout their careers.
A dual diagnosis of PTSD and drug/alcohol addiction is very common among first responders. Statistics show that 36%-52% of those who suffer from PTSD also face the added challenge of coping with an addiction. A specialized and concurrent approach to treatment is necessary in order to achieve success in recovery. The love and support from family and friends is also key to recovery.
There is hope for those who suffer from PTSD. The treatment options that are available are very complex and will help those who suffer from PTSD manage their symptoms and cope with the trauma.
We must end the stigma around PTSD and first responders. We must not allow another first responder to feel as if he/she cannot come forward and receive the help they deserve. They are the ones who are first to arrive when we need to be saved, now it is our turn to ensure that they are saved, too.