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On Mental Health and First Responders: Who Will Help the Helpers?



This month’s terrible shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, shook the nation to it’s core. However, as the news of this terrifying event was breaking, there were immediate examples of heroic actions taken by the people in the club, emergency workers, police, bystanders, and locals; men and women who were at the scene of the event or who interacted with victims in the immediate aftermath who rushed in to help the victims and their families. In the days following this horrific event, in addition to the expressions of outrage, horror, and incredible sadness, there was generated an enormous outpouring of support for the victims of the shooting and their families. Social media feeds and news reports were filled with messages from people across America united in their solidarity and expressions of their desire for the families of the victims and survivors to heal from this tragedy. Due to the extremely traumatic nature of the event that occurred that terrible June night, mental health services will definitely be a component of that healing process.

When an event like this takes place, the focus is understandably on the immediate victims of the tragedy, their families and survivors and they are the ones to whom support is most readily offered as their wounds are the most obvious and cut the deepest. However, there is another group of people who are also affected, whose wounds are not as immediately evident or obvious, but who also need healing. Fred Rogers of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood used to say, "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." While thankfully that is true, being exposed to a situation as frightening as events of June 12th can also be traumatizing for the helping individuals, regardless if they are a bystander on the street or someone who is on duty and trained as a first-responder.

Unfortunately, trauma suffered by the helpers in a situation is not typically as readily supported and often goes unacknowledged and untreated. Multiple studies have shown that first-responders such as Police, Firefighters, Paramedics, EMTs, nurses, and ER doctors can suffer from symptoms such as elevated stress levels, depression, anxiety, PTSD, and decline in work performance after being exposed to traumatic events in the line of duty. Elevated levels of stress and unaddressed trauma can have a deleterious effect on the mental health of someone in the helping field, particularly those in the first-responder role who may be involved at the most extreme stages of trauma.

Over time, the accumulated effects of this repeated exposure can lead to distress in the person’s work and/or personal life, and can result in negative interactive patterns with co-workers, relational partners, or even children. Some studies have even shown that first-responders are at a higher risk for suicide and addictive behaviors than those who are not exposed to repeated traumatic events. Sadly, there is still a stigma against seeking mental health services and, particularly for those who have been trained to deal with extreme situations, acknowledging trauma can feel like an admission of weakness.

Awareness of the need for mental health services for members of our military has slowly risen over the past few years due to the increasing evidence of the detrimental effect the trauma of war can have on a person’s mental health. These findings, as well as increased advocacy efforts, have thankfully increased and improved the mental health resources available for our veterans who suffer from trauma related exposure. Now, the next step is to expand the circle of mental health care to include all those who have suffered trauma in the line of duty protecting the public, whether that be at home or abroad.

The goal is to offer an avenue for any individual who has suffered “helper’s trauma” to have the support of their workplace, encouragement of the community, and the provision of a safe place to process their experiences. Through a supportive mental health network and increased awareness of the stresses that our first-responders face, we can work towards providing these services so that these men and women may return to their extremely important duty of protecting and serving the public.

References:

Enrich, John (November, 2014). Earlier Than Too Late: Stopping Stress and Suicide Among Emergency Personnel. http://www.emsworld.com/…/suicide-stress-and-ptsd-among-eme…

Newland, C., Barber, E., Rose, M., Young, A. (September, 2015). Survey Reveals Alarming Rates of EMS Provider Stress and Thoughts of Suicide.http://www.jems.com/…/survey-reveals-alarming-rates-of-ems-…

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Kristal DeSantis is an LMFT-A, wife of a first-responder, and founder of Austin STRONG: Relationship Building Center in Austin, TX

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