I work with first responders and I want them to know this: It’s time to start the conversation

When someone has PTSD, most people assume that one traumatic event caused it.

Even the very definition and diagnostic criteria for the disorder would indicate that this is the case.

But what if the very nature of your job means that exposure to threat or harm to yourself or to others is a routine part of what you do? What if you’ve been trained and somewhat prepared for this? (Though I’m not sure if anyone can truly know how they’ll feel when they first witness or encounter the kind of incidents we’re talking about.) What if you’ve been through lots of things like this before, been a little shaken at the time but then recovered and got on with things – maybe for months or years, or even for decades?

Then one day you find, or more likely a loved one notices, that you can’t just “shake it off” anymore.

You’re still performing your job really well, but when you get home you’re too tired to help out or socialise. You start needing that drink, or two or three, to wind down and get to sleep (or not).

You get irritated easily, and find most conversations trivial and unimportant. It’s hard to show your loved ones affection and get excited about their lives. You get frustrated with yourself and tell yourself to “pull it together” – but it just isn’t that easy to do.

The more you think about it and listen to your loved ones telling you that something isn’t right, the more you worry. You’ve seen this before; that guy that went off work and never came back. You start to think, “What if I can’t do my job? What if I can’t provide for my family? If I put my hand up, they’ll know. They (work mates, family, friends) won’t look at me the same.”

If there’d been a major incident, people would say it was understandable, there’d be ready support and something to which you can attribute the problem. As it stands, it just feels like you’re failing.

This is the story I’ve been told by so many first responders who have eventually sought help.

When they find that others have experienced the same, and that there’s effective treatment available, there’s a certain relief, alongside regret that they hadn’t sought help earlier – before other complications have set in, like an alcohol addiction or a relationship breakdown.

We’ve come a long way in understanding how cumulative trauma and stress can affect first responders. Workplaces are looking at how they can support their employees through preventative means, as well as early intervention and treatment. Courageous leaders are speaking out about their own mental health struggles and inspiring others to do the same. Colleagues are looking out for each other and encouraging help-seeking behaviour. Families are becoming more aware of the insidious nature of stress, how even joyful life events can add extra pressure to someone who’s already reached their limit.

Yet, that first conversation about needing help is still difficult. There’s a desire to look the other way and hope it goes away. It’s hard – but it’s harder to regret the losses that come with leaving it too late.

Start the conversation.

There’s help out there.

– Jae Lee is a Psychologist at Fortem

If you feel you need to talk something through, contact us to book a Psychology Support session, or make an appointment with your GP.

If you need immediate help, please call 000.