Many loved ones and family members of first responders suffer in silence. There is widespread awareness of the mental health challenges that first responders face today resulting from the stressful nature of their respective occupations. With this awareness comes significant media coverage, research studies, and numerous external supports regarding first responder’s mental health. However, often left out of the conversation is the stress endured by the families and loved ones of first responders. There is a lack of media coverage and public awareness regarding the psychological stress of first responders’ loved ones; further, there is a considerable gap in the psychological literature on the topic 1. This blog post will discuss the mental health challenges faced by the families of first responders, why supporting the families of first responders is crucial, and feature resources available to those struggling family members.
How does the nature of a first responder’s work affect their relationships?
Over time, as a first responder spends time with their spouse or children, these family members may begin to experience symptoms of vicarious trauma. Vicarious trauma or secondary traumatic stress is a form of emotional trauma that results from empathizing with an individual who has lived through one or several traumatic events 2. Even if a first responder does not explicitly share the events on the job, their family members may pick up on shifts in their loved one’s moods or behaviour. For example, suppose the first responder has begun exemplifying trauma symptoms, including but not limited to anxiety, withdrawal or detachment, depression, sleeplessness, or an inability to complete routine daily tasks. In that case, their loved one is likely to notice this and offer their support.
Providing support to an individual who has experienced trauma can be exhausting and detrimental to the supporter’s mental health or wellbeing 1. Casas & Benuto (2022) provide that spouses who act as an emotional support system to their first responder partner can experience overwhelming worry and concern about their partner’s safety on the job. They also may experience adverse effects, including but not limited to intrusive thoughts, anxiety, sleep disturbances, nausea, and mood changes due to secondary traumatic stress 1. Spouses of first responders may feel pressure to ‘keep the family together’ while simultaneously providing ongoing emotional support to their spouse, taking on more responsibility in parenting and household chores 1. Spouses of first responders may deprioritize their own needs and wellbeing, leading to feelings of isolation and potentially resentment as time goes on.
Children of first responders can often struggle with vicarious trauma too. As their parent leaves for their shift, children of first responders can experience a significant stress response 1. Although these children may not know the full extent of the traumatic events their first responder parent experiences at work, they often recognize and internalize the stress, worry, and general trauma responses exhibited by one or both of their parents. If not addressed, these internalizations could evolve into issues involving relationships and attachment, brain and body health, emotional or behavioural regulation, and self-concept as the child grows older 3.
Available Supports for Families of First Responders
Although it is not frequently discussed, there is clear evidence that supporting the families of first responders is an important issue. Organizations such as Badge of Life Canada provide resources to Canadian Public Safety Personnel and their families to help them develop effective coping strategies and live a psychologically healthy lifestyle 4. To view these resources, click here.
Therapists at Insight Psychological also specialize in supporting the families of first responders. Together with your therapist, you will determine the best approach to healing your family. Your therapist may also recommend specific and proven treatment methods such as Family Systems Therapy, Structural Therapy, Behavioural Therapy, and Solution Focused Therapy. With treatment from Insight Psychological, you and your family will learn how to set and maintain healthy boundaries, problem-solving skills, healthy and effective communication skills, reduce conflicts, and mitigate the effects of vicarious trauma. Please contact us today to book an appointment.
- Casas, J. B., & Benuto, L. T. (2022). Work-related traumatic stress spillover in first responder families: A systematic review of the literature. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 14(2), 209–217. https://doi.org/10.1037/tra0001086
- British Medical Association. (2022, January 17). Vicarious trauma: signs and strategies for coping. https://www.bma.org.uk/advice-and-support/your-wellbeing/vicarious-trauma/vicarious-trauma-signs-and-strategies-for-coping#:~:text=Vicarious%20trauma%20is%20a%20process,doctors%20and%20other%20health%20professionals.
- The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (n.d.). Complex Trauma Effects. Retrieved April 15, 2022, from https://www.nctsn.org/what-is-child-trauma/trauma-types/complex-trauma/effects
- Badge of Life Canada. (n.d.). About Us. Retrieved April 15, 2022, from https://badgeoflifecanada.org/about-us/