Television often shows the heroic actions of emergency personnel. While these are fictionalized accounts, they give an idea of just how hard such a job can be. Unfortunately, they rarely present the full story. This is why so many people don’t know about first responder trauma and the other difficulties these heroes face. This lack of understanding can prove detrimental.

If you or a loved one is a first responder, though, you experience these difficulties first-hand. There are certainly many to mention, but this guide will discuss some of the most detrimental and consequential — along with a potential solution. If any of these issues sound familiar, reach out to us at Mending Fences to learn more about the Help For Our Heroes program.

1. Feelings of Loneliness

One of the most significant problems facing emergency personnel is loneliness. Unfortunately, it’s also a major contributor to first responder trauma. That’s because the lack of a social support system can increase symptoms of depression, PTSD, anxiety and other psychiatric disorders. This is particularly troubling since emergency personnel already face high rates of these conditions.

What exactly leads to loneliness? It’s a variety of factors. First, demanding schedules sometimes make it difficult to maintain a social life. They can also put a strain on romantic relationships — relationships that otherwise could mitigate potential first responder trauma. Unfortunately, it’s not just scheduling that makes such partnerships difficult.

The fact is that emergency personnel don’t want to expose their loved ones to the things they see. This in conjunction with a duty to confidentiality often makes first responder spouses feel left out. If these individuals don’t know how to properly handle such feelings, they will find it difficult to maintain their relationship. This can push emergency workers further into isolation.

2. Guilt From Merely Living

One of the most significant causes of first responder trauma is guilt. This is often linked to compassion fatigue or high levels of empathizing with victims, but the guilt often comes from feeling helpless or even shame over surviving. The simple fact is that emergency personnel will encounter death at some point. None of their responses are abnormal, but they can be unhealthy.

Just envision the countless scenarios that first responders face. They arrive at scenes of car accidents where people have no chance of surviving. They see the carnage that can stem from terrorist attacks. They carry the very best of humankind into situations where the very worst was present only moments before. Even though they’re helping, they experience guilt.

Thoughts of “Why did I survive when they didn’t” and “I could’ve done more to save them” are not uncommon. Talk to anyone experiencing first responder trauma and you’ll learn that guilt plays a major role. Even if such events don’t lead to diagnosable conditions, though, they can still cause significant stress which can lead to problems down the road.

3. Increasing Demands at Work

Guilt and loneliness are two of the biggest problems faced by emergency response personnel. Any professional treating first responder trauma fully expects these issues to be present. Unfortunately, the underlying factors that lead to such problems have increased recently. Time demands have been significant on these professionals for years, but then COVID-19 happened.

Calls that once presented minimal risk suddenly required personal protective equipment (PPE). Young individuals who would otherwise be resilient faced life-threatening issues. Sick coworkers and job turnover left remaining responders with less time to recover from the mental stressors. To put it simply, it’s no surprise that first responder trauma is such a significant issue.

Unfortunately, these demands are unlikely to subside any time soon. In 2020, one-third of ambulance service employees left their position. Statistics also show a first responder turnover rate of 100 percent every three years. This means emergency personnel who remain on the job will continue to face significant demands. This is why it’s so important to face these issues head on.

The Solution: Combat First Responder Trauma at Every Turn

There’s no getting around many of the problems faced by emergency personnel. Schedules will likely remain demanding. First responders will continue responding to difficult scenes. Pandemics, domestic terrorism, highway accidents and other situations will keep exposing these professionals to psychiatric stressors.

In the face of such issues — which can easily lead to first responder trauma — is it hopeless for these heroes? Absolutely not. Not only are there many treatment options for those experiencing distress, but there are a variety of invaluable countermeasures. The following coping mechanisms have all shown success at reducing stress and minimizing first responder trauma:

Schedule Time With Colleagues

It can be difficult to find time away from your job if you’re a first responder. Fortunately, your coworkers are a built-in family. Scheduling activities (e.g., barbecues, birthdays) with them is a great way to reduce stress. Additionally, it will let your significant other get to know your support system. This is essential to establish trust when you can’t divulge everything about your job.

Mitigate the Potential for First Responder Trauma

There’s no guaranteed method for preventing PTSD in first responders. There are certain steps you can take, however, to minimize the potential for developing such a condition. Focus on the following steps when responding to a scene — particularly if a mass-casualty or otherwise significant event has occurred:

  • Know your specific duties and responsibilities on the scene
  • Take breaks when experiencing mental fatigue
  • Find ways to stay in communication with loved ones
  • Recognize signs of burnout (e.g., isolation, irritability, depression)
  • Establish a buddy system for mental and physical safety

Drop the Culture of Bravado

First responder trauma often goes unnoticed due to a culture of bravado within emergency management. People see steely-eyed warriors show up to scenes that others are fleeing. What they don’t realize is that these individuals are people too. Emergency workers often feed into this perception, though, by playing the role of “impenetrable hero.”

This often leaves individuals who need help without it. The fact is that emergency workers have some of the highest depression, anxiety, PTSD and suicide rates out there. If you’re experiencing first responder trauma or any other issue, it’s important to understand that you’re not alone.

Reach out to Mending Fences today to learn your options for treatment. From first responder addiction treatment to trauma therapies, we have something that can help.

Take Time to Take Care of Yourself

This guide has touched on the demanding schedule of emergency workers many times. Facing such time constraints, it’s understandable that first responders would find it difficult to take care of themselves. This often equates to fast food on the way home and going straight to bed until the next shift.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself. While a healthy diet, proper sleep habits and frequent exercise cannot prevent first responder trauma, they can help you better deal with the stressors you face. Even if you have to plan meals and work out during the five free minutes you have, make sure you focus on your health.

The Best Tip? Don’t Be Afraid to Reach Out for Help

First responders often encounter people during their worst moments. They bravely help folks from all walks of life in these situations. Unfortunately, they’re frequently left to face their struggles by themselves. It doesn’t have to be like this. There are resources available that can help these individuals better cope with the difficulties they encounter.

The Help For Our Heroes program is one such resource. Veterans of the military and emergency services created and run this vital component of treatment at Mending Fences. In addition to an approach that focuses on their unique needs — such as treating first responder trauma — clients also receive an individualized therapeutic plan that offers the best chance of recovery.

Contact us today to learn how we can help you overcome trauma and take your life back.


Psychology Today

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

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The Hill