By Caroline Godin
Any first responder position is certain to be stressful at least sometimes. The job is about responding to emergencies, sometimes horrific traumas. Someone is having the worst day of their lives and you’re there to help. It could be a fire, an accident, a 911 call, or gunshots. Some first responders make a lifelong career of their jobs; others take an early retirement due to the stress. In 2018, SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association) estimated that about 30% of first responders experienced PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), though that number is likely higher now.
In a 2021 article by the CDC, “Occupational stress in first responders is associated with increased risk of mental health issues, including hopelessness, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, as well as suicidal behaviors such as suicidal ideation (thinking about or planning suicide) and attempts.” The article goes on to say, “Law enforcement officers and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. Furthermore, EMS providers are 1.39 times more likely to die by suicide than the public. Studies have found that between 17% and 24% of public safety telecommunicators have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and 24% have symptoms of depression.”
In addition to personal mental health risks, the schedules can cause a serious stress on family life and marriages. This is even worse if one or both of those in the marriage is experiencing PTSD. While there’s no solid numbers on the divorce rate in first responders, the national rate is 50%, which is extremely high. One might imagine that among first responders, given the stress levels, it could be higher.
So what are the signs of PTSD and what can be done about it?
The Mayo Clinic lists the signs as intrusive memories (often of stressful or traumatic situations or severe emotional distress), avoidance (especially avoiding talking about certain events or avoiding certain places or activities that may be related), negative changes in mood (hopelessness, poor self-image, family detachment, lack of interest), and changes in physical and emotional reactions (easily frightened, always on guard, self-destructive, trouble concentrating, outbursts, guilt or shame).
If any of these symptoms are present and/or seem to be interfering with living a normal, productive life, medical attention may be needed. These symptoms may be hard to catch if a married couple hardly sees each other on a regular basis due to schedules. When a day-to-day schedule means each person is flying solo with the kids, or they only see each other when they’re both exhausted, it’s hard to recognize symptoms of PTSD. This is why it’s important to have regular time together in a marriage, regardless of any schedules. A couple may even need to schedule this time, but having regular time together will help the couple see each and recognize when something isn’t quite right.
Most importantly, know how to recognize when a loved one or you are experiencing suicidal ideation. If you or someone you love is having thoughts of self-harm, reach out for help. The Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). Even if you don’t think it’s serious, speaking to a professional can help sort that out and they can help plan out follow up steps. It’s always worth calling and such concerns should never be brushed aside.
PTSD can be overcome! It’s important to talk to someone anytime a traumatic event happens or anytime symptoms are present. If talking to a loved one is difficult or isn’t helping, professional help may be needed. Never be ashamed to ask for help! Getting help sooner rather than later or not at all can put one’s life back together and return healthy relationships once again.
First responders are essential and deserve all the love and support our community can offer. They deserve a fulfilling life, a healthy marriage, and a happy family. Together, recognizing the warning signs, we can prevent the dangers of PTSD and build up our most essential workers, our first responders!