What is some of the unresolved trauma in first responders? Is it prior military service?

Suicide in law enforcement is occurring too often and whether there is an epidemic or correlation to military service, it’s essential to continue awareness, research, and treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among our first responders. This past year, several New York City police officers with prior military service succumbed to suicide. Many members that serve in the armed forces return back to the states with their bravery and seek employment in the law enforcement and firefighting professions. However, not all of them know what to expect when they return home from war-torn environments and third world countries.

They don’t know what their minds will encounter and how they may be psychologically affected during the course of their careers as first responders. The military has a certain criteria for soldiers to be able to withstand the fierce psychological and physical battles ahead of them. They teach young soldiers how to kill and survive the battlefields against a combatant enemy, but they don’t teach them how to transition back into civilian life and re-acclimate into society. Years down the road, aggression and anxiety can become the theme of life after further trauma is experienced. Each person processes their experiences uniquely and some fare better, while others, especially first responders can become challenged with continuous traumatic encounters. PTSD symptoms can manifest years after combat or any traumatic event; police officers and firefighters are at a higher risk, because of the stressful nature of their work. They will silently suffer and battle their symptoms alone, due to their ingrained beliefs that mental wounds are weaknesses. Contrary to the stigma, the human mind necessitates a consistent path of nurturing for survival.

Trauma sufferers perceive life through a unique lens and process emotions differently than the average person. As a result of their injuries, they struggle with handling challenges, relationships, and the simple ability to appreciate life activities. Trauma sufferers develop their own dynamics to alleviate painful memories and changes within themselves; this may be achieved through risky adrenaline producing activities. Unresolved trauma not effectively managed, can become distorted and manifest externally. Traumatic symptoms can also be directed inward and the sufferer will experience physical ailments, severe anxiety, and debilitating depression.

First responders that engaged in military combat or witnessed it can develop more severe symptoms consisting of intermittent explosive responses, intrusive thoughts, and compulsive behaviors to cope with their pain. Many trauma sufferers and combat vets silently suffer overwhelming feelings of guilt, shame, and sadness. Ultimately, these negative feelings and behaviors can lead to an officer’s demise and they can suffer severe emotional distress if not treated by professional mental health therapists that specialize in trauma care. Wounds are not something to hide, as they represent a person’s path in life. They are comprised of sacrifice, blood, sweat, and tears. People can grow from their experiences and overcome feelings of ambivalence.

First responders are at risk for developing psychological injury from exposure to situations that go against the normality of life. These unselfish sacrifices are classified as occupational hazards that results from tending heroically to other people in severe distress and facing one’s own life and death situations. Mental health issues cannot be circumvented, because no one is exempt from mental injury and first responders are open targets for trauma.

Suppressed feelings won’t go and find a new home; they will come out of a person in destructive ways. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to bring closure to pain. People owe it to themselves! A rescuer doesn’t always know how to ask for help and I take this opportunity to open that door and invite the wounded rescuers to enter a safe place, where it’s acceptable and normal to repair psychological injuries.

First responders need to tend to their own needs and not be concerned with what others think. People are entitled to private medical and psychological services to maintain their health. The same way people wouldn’t neglect treatment to a fractured limb nor should they for a fractured mind! Who cares what anyone else thinks! Everyone has to live in their own skin.

My advice is to find comfort in speaking about these painful experiences, which begins a healing process that most don’t afford to themselves. Thought processes and feelings can change with time. Implementation of healthy coping techniques will help build a person internally and give them a chance to see life through a healthier lens. No matter what person in any field of service, the more dangerous their occupation, the more they require healthy outlets and professionally therapeutic resources.

“Pride is your greatest enemy; humility is your greatest friend.” John R.W. Stott

Debra Ann Faretra, M.A. author, originally featured in NJBLUENOW Magazine, March 2017 IssueGovX