Public safety professionals who work in any high-stress environment, such as police officers, firefighters, paramedics, dispatchers and more are at an increased risk of developing PTSD due to their careers. But what is PTSD, and how can individuals in and around the public safety profession recognize the signs of PTSD in first responders, and cope with PTSD using legitimate resources?
What is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress syndrome, or PTSD, is a phrase most individuals are at least acutely familiar with. Although PTSD is often directly connected with military or post-military individuals, all public safety professionals are at risk.
Michelle Beshears, of the American Military University explained in an article for Police1 that PTSD in many public safety professionals, specifically law enforcement, is often not caused from a singular traumatic event.
“When a catastrophic event occurs, such as an officer-involved shooting, most departments have policies and professionals to help an officer address and deal with the aftermath of an event. However, the build-up of events that arise throughout an officer’s career generally do not warrant such specialized attention. As a result, an officer with cumulative PTSD is less likely to receive treatment.”
Symptoms of PTSD
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, To be diagnosed with PTSD, an adult must have all of the following for at least 1 month:
1 or more re-experiencing symptoms
1 or more avoidance symptoms
2 or more arousal and reactivity symptoms
2 or more cognition and mood symptoms
How do we define those symptoms, and what are examples of each?
As you may guess, re-experiencing symptoms revolve around re-living, in some capacity, one or more of the triggers of your PTSD.
EXAMPLE: A recurring dream about a traumatic event
Avoidance symptoms are really any symptom that changes your day-to-day routine for the purpose of avoiding triggers.
EXAMPLE: You experienced a traumatic event involving an explosion and sustained burns. You now avoid cooking on your gas stove and avoid any type of open flame
Arousal + Reactivity
Arousal and reactivity symptoms relate to your mood or emotions, and oftentimes result in a lack of ability to regulate or control your emotions or impulses.
EXAMPLE: After your traumatic event, you find yourself constantly speeding when you drive
Cognition + Mood
Cognition and mood symptoms revolve around your general mood and feelings, and often cause you to feel separated from your family, friends and colleagues
EXAMPLE: You always used to enjoy weekly family dinners. Now, after your traumatic event, you find yourself never attending
To learn more about symptoms and signs of PTSD, visit the National Institute of Mental Health page on PTSD or visit The Recovery Village page on First Responders and PTSD.
There is no “quick fix” for PTSD. As we’ve discussed, PTSD as it appears in the public safety industry tends to be the result of a multitude of traumatic events over the course of months or years. Once you have recognized symptoms of PTSD in yourself or a colleague, you cannot address the emotional damage overnight.
The National Center for PTSD defines an important process called “Active Coping” or “accepting the impact of trauma on your life and taking direct action to improve things”. In other words, the first step to overcoming PTSD is simply acknowledging its existence. Yes, this is an obvious first step, but it’s one many do not or will not take, simply because of the stigma around mental illness in the public safety industry today.
Once you acknowledge the existence of post-traumatic stress, post-traumatic growth can begin.
Post-traumatic growth is a process that first responders can engage with to experience positive psychological changes and personal growth following a significant life crisis or traumatic event. It is an empowering concept that recognizes that individuals can experience positive transformation and resilience in the aftermath of adversity.
There are five stages of post-traumatic growth: education, regulation, disclosure, narrative development, and service:
There are two key elements to educating yourself and your colleagues on how to work through post-traumatic stress. The first element is normalizing struggle so the public safety industry as a whole accepts that struggle is common. It is easier to address and work on mental health issues when you know that those around you not only believe those issues are valid, but have experienced similar issues themselves. The second piece of education is learning about struggle, and this not only means learning about how others have overcome their struggles, but learning what positives can come out of successfully overcoming struggle.
Learn more about the education stage of post-traumatic growth here.
Regulation allows you to create space between stressful stimuli and your response to those stressful events. Regulation, in short, gives you time to ensure you are not snap-reacting to stressful situations in a manner that will negatively affect you and your loved ones more down the road. In order to successfully regulate your responses to stress, you need people around you, both at home and at work, who you can trust to have meaningful conversations about your stressors.
Learn more about the regulation stage of post-traumatic growth here.
Disclosure, put simply, is being honest. Disclosure is about having the courage to share when an event bothers you, or when you feel that a stressful event has impacted your mental wellbeing. Contrary to what some may believe, acknowledging your mental health is not a display of weakness. It is actually a sign that you are intelligent enough to recognize the signs of PTSD early, and are motivated enough to tackle this problem head-on before it become debilitating. Disclosure is also imperative if you want to positively impact and protect your colleagues. By disclosing your struggles, you are unknowingly helping many of your fellow first responders feel comfortable to address their own.
Learn more about the disclosure stage of post-traumatic growth here.
Who are you? Why are you here? Where are you going? When you find yourself struggling with your mental health, ask yourself these three questions. By reminding yourself of the values you hold closely, and your goals in life, you can assess whether or not you are currently, in this moment of your post-traumatic growth journey, are living up to these values and moving towards these goals. If not, you can begin to clearly make changes to move forward and move your narrative in the right direction.
Learn more about the narrative development stage of post-traumatic growth here.
Once you have moved through the first 4 steps of post-traumatic growth, you can share your experiences and your learnings with others in the public safety industry and beyond who are, or will, face traumatic events throughout their lives and careers. In sharing your learnings and story, you are serving those who serve the public alongside you, and ensuring the strength and resilience of the public safety profession for future generations.
Learn more about the service stage of post-traumatic growth here.
PTSD Treatment + Resources
If you are showing signs of PTSD, are actively experiencing PTSD, or simply think it would be beneficial to speak to a licensed professional, you should always feel empowered to do so. Asking for help, or simply asking for a listening ear, takes tremendous strength. Seeking support is an accomplishment in and of itself, and we encourage anyone who thinks they may benefit to seek professional guidance. If you are having suicidal thoughts, please contact a medical professional immediately.
Remember that there is no quick fix to PTSD. However, there steps you can take to head off PTSD early and often. To minimize the risk and impact of PTSD and PTSI on you and your agency, it is imperative to proactively engage with resources and tools to build mental resilience. Below are several free mental health and resiliency resources from Axon Aid, built specifically for public safety:
NOTE: axon.com and axon.com/aid is not a crisis resource.
If you are feeling suicidal, thinking about hurting yourself, or are concerned that someone you know may be in danger of hurting himself or herself, call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988. It is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, https://www.ptsd.va.gov/gethelp/coping_stress_reactions.asp