It takes a special type of person to devote themselves to helping others. Spending hours answering emergency calls can be stressful, but that’s exactly what first responders do all day and night. Unfortunately, this often takes a toll. Serious behavioral health issues can arise linked to first responder trauma. If ignored, these problems can become disastrous.

The high level of trust placed in these heroes showcases how effective they are at doing their jobs. It’s a sad fact that these individuals often don’t leave the trauma they experience at the station. That’s why it’s important to take unhealthy behavioral issues seriously. If you or a loved one is a first responder dealing with addiction or mental health issues, help is available.

Reach out to Mending Fences today to learn about the Help For Our Heroes program.

How Does First Responder Trauma Occur?

When an emergency requires first responders on scene, it’s typically the victims we worry about. It’s very easy to fall into the habit of seeing first responders as steely-eyed warriors that can deal with anything. Unfortunately, merely responding to these scenes can result in trauma. There are a variety of ways in which this can happen.

Professionals refer to the most common first responder trauma as “vicarious” or “secondary.” This occurs when someone experiences symptoms similar to trauma victims after having indirect exposure to the traumatizing event. For instance, those who encounter the victims of a terrorist attack may experience the same symptoms as those who lived through it.

To see the seriousness of this issue, it’s only necessary to look at suicide rates among first responders:

  • The suicide rate for police officers is over 30% higher than the general public
  • The suicide rate for firefighters is nearly 40% higher than the general public
  • EMS responders are 1.39 times likelier to commit suicide than the general public
  • Symptoms of depression and PTSD affect up to 24% of public safety telecommunicators

The final statistic in this list is especially troubling. It shows that first responder trauma doesn’t just affect those who go to the scenes of emergencies. Up to 24% of those who merely answer the phone when people call for help experience mental health issues. Unfortunately, such conditions can lead to severe behavioral issues for first responders and those who assist them.

Additionally, it’s not just intense traumatic events that can lead to such issues. The accumulation of smaller stressors can become chronic and lead to first responder trauma and various problems ranging from depression to substance abuse disorder. Regardless of what creates these circumstances, it’s typically behavioral health that suffers.

Behavioral Health Issues of First Responders

Mental health is what goes on inside our heads; behavioral health is how it manifests in the things we do. These two are directly linked, and the latter is often the first sign of trouble with the former. Unfortunately, behavioral issues can magnify the problems that a first responder experiences. The consequences of their actions can leave them isolated and without help.

Consider some of the many outcomes that stem from behavioral issues following first responder trauma:

  • Problems with romantic, familial, and colleague relationships
  • Inability to perform one’s job duties due to fear or stress
  • Physical injuries due to self-medicating with prescription and illicit drugs
  • Loss of property (e.g., home, vehicle) due to inability to work

Unfortunately, none of these are uncommon among first responders. Even more distressing is that such events can magnify the problems these individuals already experience. For instance, becoming distant with a significant other following trauma can lead to the end of a romantic relationship. This is a stressful event all on its own, leading to a diminished support system.

First responder trauma is not something to take lightly. Without appropriate intervention, it’s very possible that those who devote themselves to others will lose more than just careers and relationships. If you’re a first responder dealing with depression, addiction, or any other issue, you deserve to live a normal life. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help.

Unhealthy Coping After First Responder Trauma

When we think of unhealthy coping mechanisms, drug abuse is typically the first thing that comes to mind. This is a good example of negative coping, but it’s far from the only unhealthy way people respond to traumatic events. In fact, focusing only on addiction can create the misperception that other behavioral issues aren’t problematic.

Here is just a shortlist of unhealthy first responder behavioral issues that often follow traumatic events:

  • Isolating yourself and avoiding human interaction
  • Remaining constantly on guard
  • Avoiding anything that reminds you of the trauma
  • Aggressive or violent behavior
  • Overworking as an avoidance measure
  • Engaging in dangerous or reckless behavior

Unfortunately, these aren’t just the outcomes of first responder trauma. In reality, these negative coping mechanisms can worsen depression, PTSD, and other issues. If you recognize any of these behaviors in yourself or a loved one, a mental health crisis is likely occurring. In such a situation, reaching out for help immediately is vital.

Is First Responder Addiction Treatment Enough?

By now, it’s clear that addiction isn’t the only behavioral issue that can arise from first responder trauma. In situations where substance abuse is present, though, is treating addiction enough for recovery? After all, medical detox programs can remove drugs from a person’s body and help them through withdrawal.

Unfortunately, this process doesn’t deal with underlying causes. That’s why first responders living with trauma may also undergo the following therapies:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
  • Adventure Therapy
  • Neuropathy
  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)
  • Trauma group
  • Equine-Assisted Therapy

While each of these therapies can help treat first responder trauma, it’s important to realize that every person is different. Even those within the same profession who experience the same trauma can have varying treatment needs. That’s why we offer each of these approaches and more in the Help For Our Heroes program at Mending Fences.

Review our brochures here to see how we can help, or call us directly at (888) 919-2561.

Ways to Take Care of Yourself

If you’re experiencing a mental health crisis, the time to reach out for help is now. Of course, not everyone dealing with issues is at that point. Perhaps you’re experiencing acute stress that will dissipate within a few weeks, or maybe you’re concerned that your job is causing stress in your marriage. Regardless of the situation, there are ways you can help yourself.

The following tips can be very effective at avoiding and minimizing first responder trauma:

  • Exercise and eat healthy food
  • Learn what your role will be during a disaster response
  • Find ways to stay in communication with loved ones during disaster response
  • Recognize signs of burnout (e.g., sadness, irritability, lack of feelings) and take a break if necessary
  • Choose another responder to develop a buddy system with
  • Set limits with yourself when working
  • Prioritize family
  • Recognize negative coping mechanisms and fix them

Each of these strategies can help avoid first responder trauma, but traumatic events don’t follow a playbook. Even if you’re proactive about protecting your mental health, distressing situations can lead to mental health and behavioral issues. Do not let an outdated view of first responder culture stop you from getting help. Take care of yourself as well as you do others.

Stop Letting First Responder Trauma Rule Your Life

First responders very often see people during the worst moments of their lives. Unfortunately, it’s not always just a sense of fulfilled duties these heroes leave with. If you’re a first responder struggling with mental health or addiction issues, the time to reach out for help is now. These issues only worsen without treatment, and trying to “tough it out” can have major consequences.

The Help For Our Heroes program at Mending Fences caters directly to first responders. Certified professionals create customized treatment plans for each client, but the program itself was created with veteran and first responder trauma in mind. Don’t wait for another second to get the help you need. Contact us today to learn how we can help you take your life back.


Rave Mobile Safety

Centers for Disease Control

Northwestern University

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs