How does a first responder select the right counselor?

Having a counselor on your side can be a big asset when you go through a challenging incident


If you're a first responder, the thought of going to see a counselor may seem like a really bad idea. Some thought that may go through your mind: 

  • There's no way this person can "get" me and everything I would bring into counseling. 
  • I just don't want to re-live all those experiences again by talking about them. 
  • The counselor will be shocked, traumatized, or offended by the stories I have in my head.
  • What will people (coworkers, supervisors, family/friends) think?
  • I really feel like I should just be able to handle this by myself.

Finding the RIGHT counselor shouldn't be one additional concern, but for first responders, the relationship with a counselor is often a make-or-break decision.

For first responders, the relationship with a counselor is often a make-or-break decision.
For first responders, the relationship with a counselor is often a make-or-break decision. (Getty Images)

If you go to a counselor who you feel doesn't "get" you, or if the counseling relationship doesn't seem to work for any reason, instead of trying a different counselor, you're most likely to say, "I tried counseling and it didn't work."

What this means is that you're depriving yourself of the opportunity to make yourself healthy, resilient, and better at your job and at life.  

Counselor selection criteria

So, how do you find that counselor who does "get" you, and who knows exactly what to expect when working with first responders? Here’s a list of questions and criteria that can help narrow your search:

1. Ask your peer support coordinator which counselors they know and trust; many peer support teams have built relationships with counselors who have proven themselves when working with first responders.

2. Make an appointment for an interview phone call with a counselor, and ask some important questions: 

  • How many responders have the counselor worked with in the past, and for how many years? A counselor may say they've worked with responders, but if only 1% of their clients are responders, their experience is technically correct, but maybe not reliably helpful.
  • Does the counselor have the training to be "culturally competent," meaning that they have learned the quirks and culture of the first responder world? (An important certification is the Certified First Responder Counselor (CFRC), which teaches counselors the unique culture and trauma of a first responder.)

3. Call a first responder-specific crisis line (i.e., Copline) for counselor recommendations.

4. Utilize telehealth options that could allow you to see a counselor in your state, or who is licensed to practice in your state, but who may be comfortably located outside of your local community. This provides the security of some anonymity within your surrounding area by being able to go to a counselor you won't run into at the grocery store.

5. Word-of-mouth is one of the best ways to find the right counselor because your peers and coworkers will have already vetted counselors for you through their own experiences. Ask the people you trust the most, and let them provide those resources that worked for them.

Find the right counselor for you

Some additional words of advice:

  • Just because a counselor has/had a family member who is/was a first responder doesn't mean they'll necessarily be the best counselor. As a responder, you know how much you hold back and keep protected from your family members. 
  • A counselor does not need to have worked as a first responder in order to understand you; the right training and/or experience, combined with good counseling practice, will make the best counselor. 
  • Just because a counselor specializes in trauma does not mean they'll "get" you – they must also know first responder culture, so be sure to look for responder-specific knowledge.
  • Trust your gut. If you don't feel like a counselor is right for you, keep looking. The counseling relationship is just that – a relationship – and it needs to fit you. Don't give up, keep looking, and find the one who will be your career-long resource. 
  • Most importantly, find a counselor. You owe it to yourself to take really good care of your mental health and your overall well-being. Having a counselor on your side, who learns more about you over time, can be the biggest asset when you go through a challenging incident and need somewhere to unpack it. 

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