First Responders & Compassion Fatigue
“I’ve been struggling to convince the man I love (30+ years as a Police Officer) to seek help for his PTSD; however, it has been to no avail. . . I just don’t know what to say or do to convince/persuade him to seek professional help. My heart breaks to see him suffer and know that he is self medicating with alcohol. The murders, fatal car accidents, suicides, domestic violence and most recently, one of the first responders to his dear friend/retired police officer’s suicide is consuming him.” http://codegreen-campaign.org/.
Our First Responders may participate in or witness unexpected tragedy repeatedly throughout their careers. There are no national statistics available to determine their mental health status over the course of their employment. The reason for this is that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (CDC) researchers use the Standard Occupational Classification system to categorize people into occupations. For example, Medical Technicians and Paramedics are members of group 29, Healthcare Practitioners and Technical Occupations. Firefighters and Police Officers are members of group 33, Protective Service Occupations.
For a number, psychological screening is part of the application process related to their pre-employment procedure. For most, this will be the last time that this experience occurs. When trauma is involved, debriefing may be part of the process for involved staff or in some cases, referral to department sanctioned counseling becomes warranted. Unfortunately, as I’ve discussed in earlier blogs as well as in my books, ‘talk therapy’ has proven to be inadequate in fully removing the effects of exposure to traumatic experiences because it alters the circuitry in the emotional region of the brain.
Accordingly, the topic of suicide among our First Responders is difficult to ascertain. Given the seriousness of this subject, why can’t bureaucracy such as the CDC target and tag occupations that are presently listed in varied categories so that we can obtain credible national data about the extent of death through suicide among our First Responders?
I find it necessary to comment on why this focus on suicide is so critical in motivating the ‘powers that be’ to implement real solutions rather than perpetuating treatment interventions that have been shown to be relatively ineffective. Our national focus on 20 Veteran deaths per day due to suicide is the reason! Only when we have a hard number that our communities can rally around, can real change begin.
My intent in discussing this all too often ignored topic is to: lay a foundation among our dispirited First Responders for the emergence of hope rather than one of ongoing despair; of a life with meaning for those who protect us rather than a longing for death; of a future of public service by skilled and committed personnel rather than an isolative existence leading to despair with thoughts and acts of self-destruction.
Much like their comparative military combat associates, our First Responders are often exposed to traumatic situations in a random manner over the course of their service. This ultimately tends to alter their quality of life as well as negatively impacting those who are close to them. Many opt out of their chosen professions too early due to a condition found among First Responders that has come to be called ‘compassion fatigue’. Specifically, ongoing exposure to trauma can result in the depletion of emotional, physical and spiritual resiliency. Personally, the difference between this designated condition to that of PTSD appears to be rather minimal to me.
My own perspective is that human beings have not yet fully adapted to the pressures and stresses of modern life particularly when we face uncertainty and the potential for danger on a daily basis. Rather, when we experience trauma, our minds are programmed at a cellular level to go into a defensive, protective mode to ensure our survival. Understanding this self-protective mechanism through advances in neuroscience permits us to turn the growth switch back on. Simply put, based on this survival mechanism, one cannot be in a growth mode and protect and defend mode simultaneously.
Within my research efforts related to combat Veterans, I was stunned by the elevated percentages of sleep disorders and nightmares in those with chronic PTSD. Amazingly, this was the case even in those Veterans who were alleged to have ‘successfully’ completed treatment for trauma-related issues. How can we be so blind? I've come to the conclusion that unless sleep disorder and nightmares are fully eliminated, the protect and defend network remains activated even if this is at a subconscious level. To state it differently, if sleep disturbance and nightmares aren’t normalized, I consider the treatment to be a failure in re-establishing a normative balance in the afflicted individual.
Sustaining the mental wellness of our First Responders is critical in meeting our community’s needs. Unfortunately, the prevalent notion is that once traumatized through cumulative traumatic incidents, the damage is irreversible. My research and therapeutic intervention with combat Veterans suggests that this is absolute nonsense. We can reset our valued personnel to full functioning rapidly and effectively through non-invasive means. I’d like to end this blog with an example of this amazing intervention based on the use of sound that I’ve come to call RESET Therapy. For additional detail including the release of my 5th book in the fall entitled ‘First Responders’, pleas