Rachelle Zemlok, PsyD
HELPING YOUR FIRST RESPONDER RESIST THE IMPACTS
Updated: Aug 16, 2020
The intensive hiring process that first responders go through suggests our first responders might be some of the most physically and psychologically fit individuals in our communities when they are hired. Physical fitness tests, full psychological testing and interviews from psychologists, academies that push them to extremes mentally and physically, background checks calling individuals from their past to hear about prior relationships and mistakes they may have made. Intense to say the least. They pass all those tests, make the commitment to serve and protect our community, and then they can be very ill prepared for the impacts the nature of their work may have on their health, wellness, and relationships.
By now many of us fire and police spouses have seen first hand or have heard about some of the very serious negative impacts a career can have on a first responder and their relationships. First responders in general have higher rates of PTSD symptoms, depressive symptoms, and suicidal ideation than the general population. They develop higher rates of cardiac issues, sleep disorders, and cancer for firefighters. Their personalities can slowly shift into a more safety conscious, negative, distrustful, or isolating version of themselves. They might lack the tools to deal effectively with such challenges which can lead to an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, struggling relationships with family members, and a sedentary lifestyle. It can be really hard to prepare first responders for the potential negative impacts because this can be a gradual and often unnoticeable decline.
Whether or not you are seeing signs of any of this or you’re just interested in preventing them from occurring, here are 5 tips for a first responder spouse to try and help their first responder beat the impacts.
1.BE PROACTIVE WHEN IT COMES TO PERSONAL LIFE
Plan things… even when they might get ruined! The job and the schedule take over our personal lives and they will continue to do so if we let it. If we wait for the right time, when life is less crazy, or when they feel up for it, things may NEVER happen. Then suddenly we’re bored with life and one another. New and fun experiences together help boost our mood and relationships. Maybe it’s a family trip or just a date night out. Put it in the calendar early! Schedule things, many things, and plan on them. Advice: Discuss and make plans maybe on a day off when there is little stress and you’re both in a good mood. After work, or in the middle of the work week, I expect their fatigue, adrenaline dumps from the job, and the potentially horrible things they saw at work to get in the way of any potential excitement or energy. Maybe they don’t jump for joy to head out the door to try that new restaurant you agreed on last month. Try not to take that personal if possible. That doesn’t mean they do not love you or want to spend time with you. Do it anyway! Hopefully, things make a shift once you arrive.
2. HELP THEM MAKE TIME FOR NON WORK RELATED ACTIVITIES
Our daily experiences shape our outlook on the world. Which of course means the daily experiences that first responders encounter on shift will have a pretty big impact on their outlook on the world. They can commonly develop a more cautious, negative, and distrustful approach to the world. Of course what they encounter is all real life, the problem is the imbalance of how many bad things they see in relation to how often those things occur on average for the general population. It can be a pretty dark skewed version of the world. The best way to try and counterbalance that is to try and limit more negativity and to connect them to people and activities that bring out more positivity. This can get harder and harder as the years go on. Now of course having support from other first responders that “get it” is great too. But try and encourage the continued connection to those people and hobbies they once loved prior to becoming a first responder or new ones they are interested in as a way for them to escape some of what comes along with the job.
3.SUPPORT HEALTHY HABITS
We know a lot of health related issues result from stress. First responder’s endure significant amounts of stress related to their work. There is the departmental stress, likely the stuff you hear most complaints about. In addition, they physically put their body through interesting highs and lows. Our bodies aren’t necessarily meant to be calm (having a conversation and eating lunch) then suddenly thrown into emergency situations where our life or someone else's might be at risk, then back to calm and so on. Yet they do this every shift for years. You can see why it can take such a toll on their body. We know that there are ways we can help our bodies cope with stress though! That’s healthy habits. They need it more than the average individual to fight all the significant impacts. You can help make family time active, or make time in their day to hit the gym and de-stress. Maybe meal prepping to plan more healthy lunches and dinners would be helpful.
4.ENCOURAGE MORE SLEEP
Fatigue has such a great impact on first responders and their family members. They often work many more hours than the average individual. Like discussed earlier, their job places physical and mental stress on them in ways that can increase fatigue. Many of them work odd hours or respond to calls in the middle of the night. On top of that, there can be times when they are held over beyond what you might imagine, there are callouts and forced O.T. that interrupt the days they should be catching up on sleep. It’s really easy to acquire sleep debt as a first responder. We know sleep impacts so many aspects of our life and health long term. Daily it can look like irritability, short tempered, lack of energy, disengaged, nodding off. When possible encourage them catching up on sleep with naps or full nights versus using caffeine to keep them going.
5. BE AWARE OF HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH
If we know that time on at work can have short and long term impacts on a first responder’s health and wellness, it’s important to pay attention to how much time they are putting in and how much is too much. Do they still have a balanced life outside of work? Are the two of you still able to find time for one another? Have a discussion about why they are working so much. Is it temporary? Yes, certain points in the career can require more of them such as training/ probation or new assignments. Is it the family’s financial situation? Are there changes the family can make to cut down on bills in order to require less of them at work or does it make sense for two incomes as a way to allow them more balance? Basically, I am recommending you constantly assess and discuss how much time is actually being spent at work and weigh it against the costs and come to a compromise that everyone is comfortable with.
Obviously, easier said than done… but so important to try and help our first responders beat the impacts of this career. They deserve it and you do too! If it’s overwhelming to tackle on your own, get help making a plan for your family. Remember that plans work best when put in place before things are hard and having negative impacts. Yet it’s never too late to get help.