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  • Writer's pictureKathy Rolfe

The Emotional Impact of Occupational Stress Injuries on First Responders

Updated: Apr 6

“I never thought I’d be the one sitting in a shrink's office.” I’ve heard this countless times over my 10 years of treating first responders, veterans and actively serving military personnel.


The internal conflict is visible as they sit forward on my couch with their elbows on their knees and their face in their hands. The pictures that DanSun portrays of these brave members as they hide their face in shame and self-torment is unbelievably accurate. These members are torn. And torn up.


Mental Health Mindset Shifts Take Time

While with the implementation of mental health awareness programs such as R2MR, CISM, and Wounded Warriors that were created to destigmatize mental health and generate conversations within the ranks of these unique professions – emphasizing that “it's ok to not be Ok”– have helped, the stigma within these cultures is pervasive.


A graphic with mountains in the background. The text in the foreground reads "'I never thought I'd be the one sitting in a shrink's office.' I've heard this countless times over my 10 years of treating first responders, veterans and actively serving military personnel."

I was a police officer for 20 years. I was hired in 1999 and occupational stress injuries in first responders were just starting to become a part of the conversation. In my time with the Edmonton Police Service (EPS), I saw the dawn of the Employee and Family Assistance Section, and to date I would argue the EPS has one of the most standout reintegration programs in the world. The attitude shift towards mental health in these professions is happening...slowly.


In the meantime, while I could talk all day about the numerous contributing factors that have a role in causing occupational stress injures for the first responder population, generally speaking the difficulties that the members of this community have are influenced both internally and externally. 



External Influences Impacting Occupational Stress Injuries in First Responders

Externally, there are the obvious concerns such as frequent direct exposure through attending traumatic calls and vicariously hearing about them through story telling – a common coping mechanism with first responders.


A second external influence is organizational harm through interpersonal betrayal, micro-aggressions, and internal complaints. Many recent studies are showing that the latter inflicts more psychological injury than the events they attend (Charman & Bennett, 2022; Huang et al., 2022).


In my office, one is never exclusive of the other. Combine these with a number of other factors such as lack of support systems, pre-existing mental health concerns, substance abuse, and cultural influences, and wham bam you have yourself an occupational stress injury. 


Internal Influences Impacting Occupational Stress Injuries in First Responders

A person in a hooded sweater and sweat pants sitting in a window sill. You cannot see the persons face. Their body language signals that they are depressed.

Internally, while there are countless messages out there for first responders – "There is help." "We are here for you. Reach out." – there are many barriers to making the decision to ask for help. The unspoken expectation of endurance at all costs and appearing unaffected by traumatic occurrence causes a member to internalize these messages, and thus when they struggle they don't need the influence of their colleagues or supervisors. Their internal stigma will do the job for them.


These members will tell themselves they are “weak” and that they have failed; failed themselves, the team, and the community. Trauma is a liar. Depression is too. They tell you horrible things, and these spirals can have long lasting and potentially permanent consequences. 


The Good News for First Responders' Mental Health

The good news is, there is help. First responders need to shift their mindset to instead say, "Going against your internalized grain and asking for help is one of the most courageous and empowering things a person can do for themselves."


These members put everyone else first. These men and women run toward danger when everyone else runs away. It is almost difficult beyond comprehension for them to give themselves permission to get uncomfortable and ask for help, yet many do it. And if you walk among these people – whether you are a first responder yourself or a loved one is – know this: you won’t regret taking the leap and making that brave choice to ask for help. 


You also won’t break your therapist as you relay your burdensome events - I promise! Trained trauma therapists have the skills and knowledge to help move you through your difficulties. I often use the term “sh+t bucket” to describe the level of cumulative stress that can weigh a person down. Our team members at Balance can help you drain your bucket. My military people call this "emptying the rocks out of your rucksack".


Whatever term you use, let’s lighten your load. 


 

About Balance Psychological Services

Balance Psychological Services is a psychological private practice aimed toward healing, growth, and balance. Our mission is to ensure that every person who walks through our doors feels seen and accepted for exactly who they are, no matter the circumstances they are facing. With offices conveniently located in Stony Plain, Edmonton, and Beaumont, we are here and ready to help you find your balance.


Disclaimer

Information provided through Balance Psychological Services' blog posts is meant for educational purposes only. This is NOT medical or mental health advice. If you are seeking mental health advice, please contact us directly at (587) 985-3132.


References

Charman, S. and Bennett, S. (2022). Voluntary resignations from the police service: the impact of organisational and occupational stressors on organisational commitment. Policing and Society, 32(2), 159–178. https://doi.org/10.1080/10439463.2021.1891234


Huang, E., Edgar, N. E., MacLean, S. E., & Hatcher, S. (2022). Workplace Assessment Scale: Pilot Validation Study. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health19(19), 12408. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph191912408

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