How PTSD Affects Our First Responders

Many of us are familiar with the term “PTSD” but few of us know exactly what it is, its symptoms and ramifications.

PTSD is a severe emotional illness that was first diagnosed in Soldiers and War Veterans and it’s usually caused by terrifyingly frightening, life threatening, unsafe experiences.  It’s usually the result of prolonged exposure to traumatic events; as a result long lasting problems that affect many aspects of emotional and social functioning can occur.

Symptoms can include: Problems regulating feelings, severe depression, dissociation , depersonalization, seeing the abuser/perpetrator or event as all powerful, re-experiencing the trauma, avoidance, emotional numbing, hyper arousal, substance abuse, and a severe change on what gives the sufferer meaning.

There are also Compassion Fatigue and Burnout Syndrome.  Compassion Fatigue mirrors PTSD but is not the same. Compassion Fatigue can lead to poor job performance, fatigue, depression, excessive drinking and flashbacks. Burnout Syndrome is experienced and defined by first responders as a combination of exhaustion, cynicism, detachment to the job, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.

Almost any event that is life threatening may cause PTSD, however its severity varies based on prolonged exposure to traumatic experiences and events.   First responders (Firefighters, Paramedics, Police) are regularly exposed to traumatic events during their career, such events usually include experiencing or witnessing severe accidents, physical injury and/or exposure to disaster.

Up to recently many of our first responders chose to not expose themselves, not to seek outside help and rather chose to attempt to heal themselves in isolation.  When it comes to our first responders we tend to forget that the same men and women we consider heroes daily encounter situations that most of us will not during the course of our lives.

First responders experience PTSD twice the rate of the average population, add to this ASD (Acute Stress Disorder),  SUD (Substance Use Disorder) and MDD (Major Depressive Disorder) such combination heightens the risk for suicidal behaviours.

While reading on the subject I came across a great example which I would like to share with you….“Imagine two firefighters go into a fire and come out. One suffered physical wounds that lead to his death, the other survived. The family of the one that is deceased will see their loved one’s photo on the wall, will collect benefits and money from the government. They will have the void but won’t have to see their loved one handle the aftermath.  The other has emotional wounds that may contribute to his death; he won’t be on the wall, his family will not get benefits. He will most likely suffer quietly. How does one make sense of that?  Whether we want to accept it or not the reality is both families become impacted by the same incident.”

If you know of someone whom you feel may be suffering from PTSD encourage them to seek a Health Care Practitioner with experience in the field.  Prompt treatment will be most beneficial. Treatment for PTSD includes psychological and medical treatments. Education about the illness, helping the person affected by PTSD to talk about the trauma directly, exploration and modification of inaccurate ways of thinking and teaching the person new ways to manage symptoms will help tremendously; all of the techniques already mentioned are usually used in psychotherapy.

Psychotherapy is considered the most beneficial above all types of therapies out there for people suffering from PTSD as it tends to dig deep  into the root of the trauma. It can be a slow process but it is also a partnership. 

In addition the sufferer can benefit from seeking the help of a counselor or psychologist in dealing with the stresses that PTSD can inflict in a family.  Therapy can help teach all members conflict resolution; as well as helping those close to the sufferer how to understand, best approach and help in the recovery process while giving them the safety of feeling heard as well.

Treating PTSD can be an expensive road; many times due to cost many choose not to seek treatment. I hope this article helps raise awareness because it would be a shame to allow to continue our first responders without seeking treatment out of fear of being stigmatized or fear of not being able to cope with the lengthy process and high medical bills that come with the treatment of PTSD.

If untreated PTSD can have devastating, far reaching consequences for their medical, emotional, vocational functioning; add to that the damage cause to their personal relationships, their families and as a result society as a whole.  Let’s keep that in mind and lets raise awareness and support for all our first responders.

First responders are trained to save others but at times failed to save themselves.  As a society , we need to rally for those heroes who day in and day out encounter and do what they can to protect us, to help us, to make us feel safer.  What are we doing for them? Let’s think about that more!  To finish this article, I will use a quote by a first responder that brought tears to my eyes “We are supposed to rescue you, but nobody rescues us”


By Sofia Falcone

I passionately believe one person can make a difference. I write from my own experiences and interests. It is my greatest hope that by writing about my own challenges, victories, hopes and learnings, others may feel inspired to believe more in their inner power and to fully embrace themselves!

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