Updated: Jul 30
What keeps first responders from seeking help for their trauma exposures?
Because of the media spotlight on incidents involving law enforcement officers, most departments are talking to first responders about mental health more than ever! Cities are rolling out new employee assistance programs (EAPs), hiring clinical social workers, and mandating more mental health training. However, few, if any first responders are taking advantage of these new benefits and programs. So what's the problem?
Let's talk about the pervasive masculinity culture that is keeping first responders hostage.
It's estimated that as many as one in three law enforcement officers experiences PTSD symptoms. This can lead to a variety of issues, including relationship and family problems and the inability to perform well at work. Masculinity is a recurring theme in first responder culture. The need to be mentally and physically tough is still the norm and is reinforced. The physical risks that first responders face furthers the belief that the ideal officer should be brave, strong, and authoritarian. Value is placed on physical, not mental, strength. Those who fully live up to these norms are embraced by the "brotherhood," whereas those who do not are deemed weak and may be targets of rejection and isolation. This is a tough position for a first responder who relies on his peers for support in dangerous situations. The ability to avoid emotions is actually harmful to a first responder who is repeatedly exposed to trauma. This can lead to issues such as PTSD, alcohol abuse, depression, sleep issues, increased risk for suicide, and relationship problems.
Here are some myths about first responder issues in counseling:
1. Seeing a therapist makes me unfit for duty and my command staff will find out:
THIS IS FALSE! Mental health treatment is considered confidential medical information and is covered by HIPAA laws. There are a few exceptions to the rights to confidentiality, not limited to, but including if you disclose that you are at immediate risk of hurting yourself or someone else.
2. Seeing a therapist makes me weak:
THIS IS ALSO FALSE! Acknowledging that you are struggling and taking action to help yourself is a sign of personal strength.
3. My therapist won't understand me or what I've been through because he/she hasn't experienced it first hand:
This is sort of true... although I've never walked a mile in your shoes, I can walk the next part of the journey beside you. No therapist can ever fully know and understand the experiences of their clients (because each individual interprets experiences in a unique way). Even someone who has had the exact same experience as you will likely perceive it differently, resulting in differing feelings and emotions. However, a therapist doesn't have to know exactly how you feel in order to effectively help. With that being said, as a first responder wife, I have witnessed first hand many of the struggles that you are likely facing.
4. No one wants to/will be able to hear about the terrible things that I've seen and done:
INCORRECT! I really enjoy the magic that happens when a client is finally able to tell their hardest stories. We all have parts of ourselves that we would prefer to keep hidden. In therapy we bring these issues to light and celebrate the bravery it takes to speak about our journey.
5. I can't get better, so I should just find another job:
WRONG, AGAIN! Yes, what you are feeling and experience is hard! However, you can work on your past traumas and build healthier coping skills for the future. You can have a lasting and fulfilling career in this field with some changes.
Alright, now that we've busted some of the myths that may prevent a first responder from seeking treatment, it is important to note that working to resolve trauma and create new patterns does take time and effort. If you're a first responder who is struggling, let's chat!