Counselling for First Responders

For most of us, about the worst thing that happens on the job is our boss gets angry, or we lose a client, or we discover our lunch has gone missing from the company refrigerator. For first responders—the firefighters, police officers, paramedics and others who keep us safe—work can mean close encounters with danger, chaos and death, sometimes on a daily basis.

Over time, exposure to such stress can take a toll on first responders’ mental and physical health. In some cases, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) results, with symptoms such as:

  • Flashbacks, nightmares, and recurring thoughts

  • Emotional numbness

  • Extreme worry, guilt, anger or hopelessness

  • Avoidance of people, places or things that are reminders of the trauma

  • A loss of interest in things that once gave pleasure

  • Feeling anxious, on edge or jumpy, and startling easily

  • Sleep issues

  • Problems with alcohol, drugs or food

Specialised, confidential treatment for first responders is available, and this is what it can help you to understand:

You aren’t alone. About one in five people experiences a mental health issue in any given year, research shows. And the extraordinary stressors that first responders face boost that risk.

Trauma is a normal human response to an abnormal situation. It would be strange, after all, if you had no negative reaction to putting your life at risk each day or seeing terrible things happen to people and being powerless at times to help. Understanding this allows you to move from a mindset of “what’s wrong with me?” to a more empowering “this is what’s going on with me.”

Trauma is better Trauma is better understood as an injury to the brain than an illness. In fact, some groups prefer the term post-traumatic stress injury to post-traumatic stress disorder. Left unaddressed, however, that injury can lead to illnesses such as depression and anxiety.

We are all wired differently in terms of how trauma affects us, but each of us can build resilience to it. That’s achieved primarily by working on your connections with others. The more supportive, caring, trustworthy people you have in your life, the more able you are to cope with the experiences that can lead to trauma. Also important is learning how to manage feelings, improve communication skills, and develop more realistic and positive ways of viewing yourself and your experiences.

Another bonus to getting help for trauma is this: It’s not just you who benefits. You family, your friends—all the people who are closest to you and are often the first to notice your struggles—will gain much from the improved relationship you’ve built with yourself. It also helps your fellow first responders, who may be suffering silently in exactly the same way. When you allow yourself to be helped, you make it OK for them to get help too.

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