Breaking the Stigma - Part 4

Some of the best clinicians to deal with the needs of police officers, firefighters, paramedics, and others in similar careers, are those who have a background in emergency services themselves.  It is not unusual at all to see clinicians who advertise that they treat first responders to have such a background.  For example, one of the members of the board of directors for the Call for Backup organization is a retired trooper from the Michigan State Police who obtained is counseling degree and now has a practice serving exclusively first responders.

Clinicians who do not have a background in emergency services can still have members of those populations as clients, assuming they have taken steps to become integrated in some way with the culture, and who conduct themselves in a way that shows acceptance of the culture of emergency services.  I’ve conducted many training classes in critical incident stress management with first responders seated along with clinicians who were being trained to understand and work within those cultures.

Family members also need to embrace the culture and understand that family routines change for those in the military or emergency services.  Guess what – there will be missed anniversaries and birthdays.  Someone else is going to have to take the kids to soccer practice or to the dance recital.  Dinner plans will have to be changed, and family vacations may be interrupted.  Rather than fight it, families must embrace it together.

And let’s face it – “crap” rolls down-hill.  Spouses and life partners have to understand that when their loved one has “had it up to here” they may behave in ways that seem uncaring, unloving, or perhaps even downright mean.  Be present and be supportive.  Walk through those challenges together.

Family members of first responders are also at risk for vicarious traumatization and secondary traumatic stress as a result of the trauma that may be directly experienced by the person serving in one of those uniformed services.  Any family member who begins to experience stress-related symptoms should also seek help in adjusting to those difficult circumstances.

Finally, peers can take advantage of their shared understanding and empathy to help one another.  What would you expect coworkers to ask each other after some kind of stressful incident or event?  They would likely ask each other, “Are you okay?”  They naturally care for each other, and they naturally understand each other because they wear the same uniform and do the same work.  They simply need to be accustomed to asking that question of each other when they simply recognize that a peer may have been going through some “stuff” and just needs to know that he or she is important and supported.

Many peers have been trained in peer support programs that may be unique to their own service, or in critical incident stress management programs offered by organizations such as the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation.  Peer support definitely belongs on the continuum of care that individuals may need in dealing with the cumulative effects of chronic stress, or the sudden impact of a traumatic event.

I have seen department or agency leaders resist the idea of implementing programs to help their personnel deal with issues related to their mental and emotional well-being.  I have also seen members of departments band together and continue to lobby their administration until they were given the funding and access to training so they could begin the process of creating a culture of support within the department.

In our next article, we’ll be talking about the three things every first responder needs to effectively deal with stress, especially the aftermath of critical incident stress.  If you have any questions or concerns about your own well-being and you'd like to chat with one of our peer support specialists, simply go to

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