Not too long ago, my kids were watching the Angry Birds movie, for what seemed to be the millionth time in the week, when I heard my husband ask them to stop singing along to one of the songs. The song was Sound of da Police by KRS-One. After learning that this song portrays a very negative image of police, I had one of those awful parenting moments where I felt inadequate for not catching on to it sooner especially because it attacked my husband’s profession. This experience along with the constant anti-police stories and comments flooding social media nowadays, made me revisit the thought of how difficult it must be for my husband and other police officers to go to work everyday with this added stressor to their already stressful jobs. On a greater scale, it made me think about all types of first responders, and the various psychological and psychosocial issues they may struggle with due to the high levels of stress they experience on a daily basis, while being expected to be strong and hero-like. Research has shown that although situations experienced by first responders of different professions may vary, they are all at risk for developing Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and other stress-related issues. However, few seek help because they are afraid to be perceived as weak and unable to continue to serve and protect; or simply because they are unsure where to go.
Being married to a police officer and having many friends and family members that are or have been first responders, has increased my interest to further expand my knowledge on the issues presented by first responders and their families and how these could be addressed therapeutically. In talking to first responders and their spouses, I have found that they all shared similar accounts of how the high degree of stress they face in their professional lives carry over into their personal lives. Symptoms reported by first responders include things like sleep disruption/deprivation, increased irritability, flashbacks, nightmares, physical and mental exhaustion, tension related back/muscular pain, and isolation from loved ones, to name a few. Due to the constant exposure of stressful, and possibly traumatic events, while on duty along with the cumulative effect of stress, first responders are at a higher risk for developing depression, anxiety, addiction issues, and relationship issues.
Spouses and children are also affected in their own way. Spouses report having to deal with the fact that their husband/wife will miss holidays, birthdays and other special family events which can create distance in their marriage, communication issues, and feelings of loneliness and resentment. Some report finding it difficult to accept that their spouse is “out there protecting others” while they themselves are left to cope on their own with difficult situations. One first responder’s wife shared having to find out her baby had died while in utero on a routine ultrasound appointment while her husband was on shift. She further shared that his inability to leave work to be with her made her realize “I was not supposed to be his priority.” Another common issue reported is the “loss of days [off]” they experience due to the amount of time first responders need to recuperate from a long or difficult shift/week. In other words if the first responder has 2 or 3 days off “half or all of it could be lost to recuperating” leaving little time for the family to share and bond which could lead to relationship issues.
When it comes to seeking support, some first responders are unsure of what is available and/or acceptable. Some are offered to meet with peer counselors through the workplace, which may not always be a comfortable option. Others report relying mostly on the relationships and bonds they have created with their coworkers. Spouses also look for other spouses for support. Many fear that seeking therapeutic services would make them appear weak and untrustworthy or that they it may cause them to lose their jobs.
With all that first responders experience on a daily basis at work and with the current social/political climate we are experiencing, it is important to let them and their families know that they are not alone, that they are valued and cared for, that their daily sacrifices are appreciated, and that there is confidential help available to them for when they are in need. It only takes a call or a click to get started.
Special thanks to the first responders and their spouses for permitting me to share their stories.