When we are in distress, when are in peril, we rely on our first responders. Firefighters. Paramedics. Police. And, the dispatchers who sort through often-harrowing calls and stay on the line until help arrives.
It is tempting to view these men and women as invincible heroes in white capes. And indeed, heroes they are. But they, like the rest of us, are not invincible. They have their kryptonite, too.
Now, most of us subscribe to the belief – or practice – of not bringing the job home. Work is work, we tell ourselves, and home is home.
Regrettably for some among us, notably our first responders, this is often not possible. The sights, sounds, and experiences of the day can cling; and in some cases they take root and haunt the emotions.
Before we get in to the current state of affairs, it is worth casting our eye back into history for a bit.
The idea of stress-induced trauma took many decades – and wars – to gain credibility. Many returning soldiers came home with terrible (but invisible) psychological damage, often made manifest in alcohol/substance abuse, social and family dysfunction and – all too frequently – suicide.
While the links between wartime experience and emotional problems seemed obvious from a common-sense point of view, there was denial. Whether because of pride or ignorance, what later came to be known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was ridiculed; sufferers were generally viewed as congenitally weak. They were stigmatized.
I know that first hand. Most of my male relatives – uncles, grandfathers – were soldiers, and most came home in emotional turmoil. In some cases, this took years to incubate, but eventually PTSD symptoms showed up – and were denied.
We live in a more enlightened age. While there are still those who think PTSD is a myth (these folks also fear the edges of a flat Earth), overwhelming clinical evidence points to its reality. Furthermore, as science gets more sophisticated at recognizing subtle symptoms, the range and degree of causative experience becomes broader.
Thus we come to our first responders.
We need not dwell too deeply on what they do for us. Rather, we should think about what we can do for them. After all, they work for us – for the governments we pay for and which should be responsive to public concerns. It falls to us, then, to ensure are first responders are given care and support beyond the wages they earn.
First, in each firehall, police station, paramedic unit, there ought to be one person on staff trained to recognize the signs of work-related emotional trauma. Just as there is a designated first aid staffer in most offices, so too ought there be an individual uniquely trained in psychological issues in our first responders’ places of work.
Second, there is stigma everywhere – including in the first responder community. Those folks experiencing the effects of emotional turmoil may often be reluctant to make that fact known, because a small number of peers may react in an unhelpful way.
Again, publicly funded training must be made available so the utterly avoidable matter of stigma may be dealt with in an informed and adult way.
By lobbying our politicians for these things, we might be able to give back a fraction of what our first responders give us.
Note: A version of this piece appears February 8 2019 in The Coast Reporter.