PTSD: The Struggle First Responders and Veterans Shouldn’t Have to Face Alone

It can be difficult to discuss the impact of PTSD on Veterans, because most of the general population will have no idea what facing down an enemy with a gun feels like. They will never know what thoughts go through someone’s head when they’re running into a blazing fire. They’ll never understand how difficult it is to tell someone’s family member that their loved one couldn’t be saved. Being a hero can be a lonely life. It’s time we change that.

The Aftermath of Heroism

In 2015, a survey of four thousand emergency responders (paramedics, police officers, emergency techs, and firefighters) found that about six percent of respondents had tried to take their lives at some point. Emergency responders were ten times more likely to commit suicide than the general population.

There is an undeniable mental health risk in military and emergency response work. The consistent exposure to traumatic or violent events, threat to life, and the potential loss of colleagues can exact a heavy psychological toll. A majority of the people in these roles are men, and the culture in these environments may be to grin and bear it, even if it means compromising mental health.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

It’s typical to feel keyed up after witnessing a traumatic event. Some people may have disturbing flashbacks or emotional outbursts for a few days or weeks afterward. It’s normal to have upsetting memories or have trouble sleeping after a traumatic event. When returning to familiar routines, life can feel out of place and out of proportion. However, these feelings can turn into Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) if they last for more than a month.

Although anyone can develop PTSD, it’s a term usually associated with veterans. However, first responders have also been known to experience high rates of PTSD and depression. Depression often coexists with PTSD in veterans and first responders. Rates of PTSD amongst first responders are about 3%, and rates of depression are 21%to 53%.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), PTSD symptoms include the following:

  • Recurring and distressing memories, which can consist of nightmares and intrusive thoughts.
  • Avoiding areas or objects that can remind them of the traumatic event.
  • Hypervigilance such as being easy to startle, insomnia, anger, and irritability.
  • Not being able to recall parts of the event.
  • Feeling anxious, worried, and fearful.
  • Depression and suicidal thoughts. 

PTSD can have debilitating effects on an individual’s life. Veterans and first responders may experience job loss or the inability to maintain a job after developing PTSD. People with PTSD have higher rates of substance abuse and addictions. PTSD can alienate friends and loved ones, further isolating the person diagnosed with PTSD.

PTSD in Veterans: Protective Factors

Protective factors help to brace individuals from feelings of loneliness, depression, and anxiety. Family and social support can alleviate PTSD symptoms and promote healing. Having people near them who recognize their service and understand PTSD can help to prevent negative outcomes, like addiction and suicide.  Here are a few services that are working to help PTSD patients overcome their challenges.

Hidden Battles

Hidden Battles is a non-profit foundation that helps to promote protective factors such as social support in the form of monthly, confidential support groups and a military-style “buddy system,” which links members. Job-related stresses and trauma are often easier to manage when concerns can be shared among members who have been through similar events. Hidden Battles also provides education and workshops to increase awareness of suicide-related deaths and PTSD in veterans and first responders.

Helping Paws: Fighting Back Against PTSD in Veterans

Helping Paws provides service dogs to veterans and first responders with PTSD. The service dogs are available from Helping Paws are trained to work specifically with individuals diagnosed with PTSD. Service dogs act as protective factors for individuals by providing companionship, loyalty, and security. Service dogs help to make their partners feel more secure and comfortable when out in public areas, allowing people living with PTSD to assimilate back into society and decrease their isolation.

Boulder Crest Retreat

Boulder Crest is a non-profit that provides free retreats for combat veterans and their families who are dealing with PTSD. These retreats are geared towards education and life-skills, enabling individuals with PTSD and their families to live productive and satisfying Iives. Boulder Crest retreats are intensive and focused on providing the best treatments for PTSD in a short amount of time.

All Clear Foundation

For someone with PTSD, trying to find support can be overwhelming. All Clear Foundation is a non-profit that seeks to integrate and collaborate with other first-responder focused non-profits on providing education and services to first responders diagnosed with PTSD. By working with other non-profits,  All Clear Foundation links first responders to agencies that meet their individual needs.

Social Support Plus Education Equals Resilience

Proactive measures can mitigate the development of PTSD. Research has proven that exposure to traumatic and violent events can lead to the occurrence of PTSD. It is also clear that first responders and veterans work in high-risk jobs that may expose workers to traumatic and violent events, sometimes consistently. Knowing this, the best way to support veterans and first responders may be to help them establish resilience.

 The American Psychological Association (APA) defines resilience as the process of being able to “bounce back” from painful experiences, which can also result in personal growth. By helping veterans and first responders to develop resilience prior, during, and after their service, we can save our heroes.

One of the most straightforward and most personal ways to help them develop resilience is to acknowledge their sacrifice and thank them for their service. Another easy way is to treat PTSD and mental health as the critical issues that they are, and not to participate in thinking or speech that promote them as social stigmas.

Military and first responder training can also do more to identify and encourage protective factors and mental health within their ranks. By establishing education, training, and viable avenues for treatment, veterans and first responders can receive the help they deserve. Even heroes need to talk and, if you’re struggling, reaching out can make a huge difference, and help you finally get your life back on track. 



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Jill Case

Jill Case

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