The Emotional Pain of First Responders

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Our Country’s Bravest Face Their Own Emotional Pain in the Aftermath of the Boston Bombings and Texas Explosion

By Lisa Davis

In the wake of this week’s tragic events, the Boston bombings and the Texas fertilizer plant explosion, we take a look at the emotional pain felt by first responders. First responders are those who show up first to help the wounded and are typically firefighters, emergency medical technicians, paramedics and police. Since they witness the trauma firsthand, which in the case of the Boston bombings included people with severed limbs and the death of an 8-year-old boy, the emotional pain they experience can be intense.

It’s common for first responders to feel distressed and emotional about the events they witness on the job, notes Douglas Craig, PsyD, a former police officer-turned-psychologist. Their entire working lives revolve around responding to traumatic incidents and dealing with grief and loss, said Craig, who is a professor of police and forensic psychology at the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago, during an interview on esperanza’s website. It’s a heavy badge to carry.

Watch this first responder’s emotional story about the Boston bombings.

According to a news story on IndianaNewsCenter.com, police officer Dave Gladieux talks about the emotional turmoil crime and disaster investigations can present. Gladieux was a young Allen County sheriff’s officer in 1992 when he answered the call to check out a shooting in Aboite Township. When he arrived on the scene, a woman screaming hysterically alerted him to an unspeakable double murder-suicide in her home, committed by her husband. Gladieux says he sought treatment following that incident for the effects of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He expects the first responders at the Texas plant explosion and the Boston attack will require that same kind of treatment.

The emotional reactions first responders can have to traumatic events they witness can range from feelings of helplessness, to anger and rage. The Child and Adolescent Health Branch of the California Department of Health Services put together a handout, Emotional Impact on First Responders and Emergency Medical Personnel in a SIDS Incident, which outlines some of these reactions, including:

  • Isolation
    The feeling of being alone is common, and the perception that no one else knows what you are going through. First responders have stated they experience irritability and agitation, and repeatedly deny that anything is wrong. 
  • Intrusive Thoughts
    First responders have shared they relive the events in their minds, over and over again. If it continues, they begin to wonder or question whether they have complete control of their thoughts. While a first responder is replaying the event, they may change the character mentally by replacing the victims with their own family members. This also occurs in their dreams. 
  • Helplessness
    First responders are helpers and do not like the feeling that there is nothing they can do to change the situation. 
  • Hostility and Anger
    Hostility and anger can be non-directed (just mad it happened). The hostility is short-lived, but returns several times during the adaption process.
  • Feelings of Guilt/Bargaining
    Feelings internalized or projected, over things they did or didn’t do (wishing the victim survived), or things they might have done differently during the incident. The first responder will critize themselves after the situation is over. They tend to feel they could have done something more for the victims. They question their competency level, constantly asking themselves, What if
  • Withdrawal/Depression
    The incident may become too painful to cope with, causing sadness to go on for days. The length of time depends on the first responder basic personality, the type of incident they responded to, how their peers dealt with the incident, and the availability and use of psychological intervention services.

Photo Credit: The Bay Area’s News Station via Flickr/Creative Commons

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