Strength in numbers: How firefighters can face PTSD and addiction
A look inside one of our nation's first "warriors only" PTSD treatment plans.
Tragic events like those in Dallas and Baton Rouge are the kind of traumatic events that can trigger PTSD in first responders.
It’s important for firefighters to learn about dealing with post-traumatic stress (PTS), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and addiction, which is often related to stress. FireRescue1 spoke with Annette T. Hill, Warriors Heart clinical director, about the symptoms of these disorders and a recovery process specific to first responders.
Hill is a Gold Star mother, whose son, Adam, served two tours in Iraq. Sadly, Adam passed away as a result of PTSD symptoms in 2009. Hill has since made it her life’s work, alongside a team of addiction and mental health specialists, to serve military personnel, veterans, law enforcement, and first responders and help them in their battles with trauma.
FireRescue1: What is the difference between post-traumatic stress (PTS) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?
Hill: PTS is common for law enforcement officers and first responders. It is the feeling of stress from on-the-job exposure to death, shootings, child abuse, violence and other trauma. PTS becomes a disorder, PTSD, when the duration of the stress reactions from trauma lasts more than one month and creates problems with one’s daily living.
The continuous day-to-day occurrence of life-threatening events, combined with witnessing the trauma of others, may result in complex PTSD. Our brains attempt to compartmentalize traumatic experiences, and as a result, the presentation of symptoms will be delayed.
The symptoms of PTSD present in many different ways – flashbacks; avoidance of people, places or things; nightmares; anxiety; and withdrawal.
FireRescue1: Why does addiction often overlap PTSD?
Hill: It is common for people to use alcohol or a substance as a means of calming distressing symptoms. However, abuse of or addiction to a substance can accelerate pain.
Addiction becomes the Band-Aid and does not get to the root of the trauma or resolve it. Addiction only prolongs the suffering and symptoms of the traumatic event. If PTSD is not healed, addiction can spiral out of control, causing further problems at work, home and with all relationships.
FireRescue1: How can peer-to-peer programs like Warriors Heart help heal PTSD and addiction?
Hill: Our “warriors only” approach focuses on military, veterans, firefighters, first responders, EMS and other front-line protectors who experience situations that the general population has a hard time understanding. These warriors can come into an environment where the group understands the trauma each other faces.
Our warriors run into battle, where most run out of battle. We have found that warriors who come into treatment are able to open up almost immediately thanks to the brother- and sisterhood.
FireRescue1: How can first responders overcome the stigma that they should not seek help for mental health issues?
Hill: Warriors are trained to be tough. To show sorrow or depression feels like an indicator of weakness, so it's often compartmentalized and hidden.
After time, hiding emotions takes a toll on a warrior physically, emotionally and spiritually. We want to relay [that] dealing with emotions is a sign of strength. To be able to release and work through trauma and addiction can make a warrior stronger after treatment.
If you or someone you love is dealing with PTS, PTSD or addiction, reach out to a professional to get help. You are not alone, and can find strength through healing.