How Psychological Trauma in One Person Can Have Lasting and Damaging Effects on an Entire Department

According to some studies, the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among first responders may be between 15 and 30%, up to four times the rate among the U.S. general population. Such a high statistic nearly guarantees that every first responder department will include people with PTSD, some of them possibly undiagnosed and therefore untreated. While PTSD takes its heaviest toll on an individual and that individual’s family, the impact of PTSD on an individual’s co-workers—their entire department, in fact—cannot be underestimated.

How PTSD Affects an Individual

Some of the most common signs and symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Sleep problems
  • Feeling edgy, jumpy
  • Irritability
  • Startling easily
  • Extreme guilt, anger, or worry
  • Mood swings
  • Emotional numbness
  • Nightmares
  • Vivid memories and flashbacks
  • Misuse of alcohol, drugs, or food
  • Avoiding reminders of the trauma (people, places, things)
  • Hypervigilance
  • Self-isolation
  • Loss of motivation
  • Loss of interest in pastimes/hobbies
  • Self-harming behaviors
  • Feeling detached
  • Attention/memory/concentration issues

How PTSD in One Individual Can Affect an Entire Department

Avoiding reminders of the trauma

If, for example, a law enforcement officer was involved in a serious motor vehicle accident while responding to a call, avoiding reminders of the trauma might translate into making excuses not to drive the squad car. A paramedic who was unable to save the life of an injured child may show reluctance to respond to calls involving children. A firefighter who was trapped inside a burning building might freeze when faced with a similar situation. In any case, such reactions on the job are dangerous for not only the community your team serves and the responder with PTSD, but for the entire department. Everyone on your team must be able to reasonably rely on each other, and the type of avoidant behaviors sometimes associated with PTSD erode that crucial foundation of reliance.

Hesitation on the job

Some of what a first responder does in a day’s work requires split-second decision-making. First responders depend on their training, experience, and best judgment when a situation demands instantaneous response. A moment’s hesitation can cost lives; inappropriate hesitation sometimes results from PTSD. A law enforcement officer who has been involved in an incident where he was wrongfully accused of brutality may be slow to assert control when a suspect becomes aggressive—this endangers the officer, the suspect, and bystanders.

Taking excessive sick time

Excessive sick time can be a common consequence of PTSD. Many of the symptoms of PTSD—including but not limited to depression, insomnia, a tendency to self-isolate, and misuse of drugs or alcohol—can lead to a first responder calling in sick more often than usual. Of course, a first responder who is clinically ill and unable to perform his or her duties and who may be contagious should stay home and recover. But lost worktime as a result of the manifestations of PTSD strains the entire team. Other team members may need to be called in on their much-needed days off. Short staffing can lead to slow response to calls and inadequate coverage of department needs. And resentment among the team can stress work relationships.

Difficulty controlling emotions on the job

First responders who are controlled by their emotions—especially anger and fear—rather than being in control of their emotions risk not only clouded judgment but also increased potential for conflict with co-workers and the public they serve.

Increased misconduct reports

Any of the aforementioned issues can raise the likelihood of misconduct of all types, both with co-workers and supervisors and with constituents.

What You Can Do to Protect Your Department

Quickly identify potentially traumatic incidents

Understanding the types of incidents most likely to cause traumatization can help department management and team members look out for each other. Bear in mind, though, that an experience from which one person recovers quickly and completely can in another person lead to PTSD.

Mental health check-ins

Either formally with a mental health counselor or informally with a co-worker “buddy,” regular opportunities to safely assess mental wellness can go a long way in spotting problems early and providing help when needed.

Make counseling available

Having a dedicated licensed mental health provider readily accessible to the department can prevent issues. Team members can easily and quickly schedule a convenient time to talk over something that’s on their minds before it becomes a problem.

Destigmatize PTSD, trauma, and mental health

Make it OK in your department to openly discuss mental health in the context of the stresses particular to the jobs of first responders. Educate your team on why PTSD develops and why there’s no shame in having it or in seeking help for it. Encourage your team to view PTSD as a normal response to out-of-the-ordinary experiences. Treat seeking help for PTSD and mental health concerns as strengths that will benefit everyone.

Communicate and build connections

A sense of belonging can help protect against PTSD and improve overall mental health. Cultivating strong emotional connections among your department members can improve resilience and well-being in the face of the enormous stress that first responders confront in their jobs daily.

The Good News

Many experts describe psychological trauma and PTSD as normal reactions to abnormal situations. By emphasizing this view and focusing on awareness, education, and destigmatization, the effects of psychological trauma and PTSD on first responders and first responder departments can be minimized and sometimes even avoided.

Envisage Technologies—the company that produces the Acadis Readiness Suite and FirstForward—also produces free resources to help first responders manage stress and trauma:

  • Click here to register for our free upcoming webinar on November 12 “Suicide Intervention”
  • Click here to access a free webinar (recorded August 5, 2020), “Suicide Prevention.”
  • For a free poster on first responder stress and mental health, click here.
  • To learn how traumatic memories differ from everyday memories (and why this matters for first responders), click here.

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