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First Responders’ struggle with PTSD and depression

First Responders dealing with PTSD and depression

Most people experience trauma in their lives. Some incidences are common, such as the death of a close loved one following a stroke or cardiac arrest, while others are (thankfully) rare, such as experiencing physical violence. And when these traumas occur, it’s our country’s police officers, firefighters, paramedics and EMTs who arrive ready, willing and able to care for their fellow citizens at what is in many cases their most desperate hour.

This is the job that firefighter/paramedic Pettingill did day in and day out. Some days are worse than others, like October 1, 2017, when a shooter opened fire on a crowd of country music concertgoers in Las Vegas. Firefighters and paramedics from the Henderson Fire Department as well as many other nearby police, fire and EMS agencies ran toward danger on that night to protect and care for the victims, even before a threat to their own safety could be neutralized. First responders protected many people and saved many lives, while at the same time providing emotional support to those already grieving the loss of a loved one.

Despite the stoic or detached appearance of calm concern often worn on the face of rescuers during a crisis, these events are strenuous and draining for first responders – a hazard of the job that results in sleepless nights or leads them to find comfort in a beer or cocktail. Insomnia and substance use are both symptoms of PTSD. They ultimately do little, if anything, to help people cope and, more often than not, can make a bad situation worse. Researchers have identified both as likely contributors to the high suicide rates of fire and EMS professionals

Insomnia and other sleep disturbances can result in heightened emotional reactivity and problems with regulating emotions that can increase the risk of depression. Poor sleep due to erratic schedules and long shifts is an unfortunate reality for fire and EMS professionals. Once “just part of the job,” fatigue is finally being acknowledged as a problem in fire and EMS , and efforts are being made by fire chiefs and leaders in EMS to reduce fatigue amongst their ranks.


In June, the U.S. Senate unanimously voted on a resolution to establish Oct. 28, 2019, as “Honoring the Nation’s First Responders Day,” encouraging Americans to celebrate the contributions of our nation’s 4.6 million career and volunteer firefighters, police, emergency medical technicians, and paramedics. In this spirit, let’s make a commitment to acknowledge the efforts of first responders every day by remaining sensitive to the fact that some may be suffering in silence.

There are two things every one of us can do to help and honor first responders. Both are very easy:

Recognize the symptoms of PTSD and offer appropriate support

Symptoms of PTSD may include:

  • insomnia and nightmares
  • uncharacteristic temper
  • irritability
  • difficulty concentrating
  • difficulty managing emotions
  • flashbacks
  • depression
  • suicidal thoughts
  • substance abuse and addiction

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