The Invisible Island:  When you love a first responder with PTSD

IMPORTANT: This blog is not a substitute for therapy, but provides evidenced-based education for the purposes of self-help, or to compliment the therapeutic process. ​ ​This blog is non-monetized.

By: Sandra Richardson, Registered Psychotherapist 

According to statistics collected by Tema Conter Memorial Trust the prevalence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in First Responder professions can be as high as 25.6 percent. The Canadian Government and first responder employers have launched significant steps to provide support for treatment and reintegration into the workplace for those diagnosed with PTSD, and implemented many initiatives to educate the first responder on the potential of PTSD resulting from workplace events.

However, far less literature, training and support is known for the family and friends of first responders experiencing this debilitating disorder.

My experience as a police officer for 30 years, a spouse of a first responder and now as a clinical counselor that has worked with first responders in their pursuit to recover from PTSD, I find myself in a unique position to understand the full circle of care and support needed not only to help those suffering PTSD, but also the ability to understand the helplessness a family member experiences as they valiantly support their loved ones.   

SOME OF THE MOST COMMON SYMPTOMS OF PTSD INCLUDE:

  • Intense feelings of distress when reminded of a tragic event
  • Extreme physical reactions to reminders of trauma such as a nausea, sweating or a pounding heart
  • Invasive, upsetting memories of a tragedy
  • Flashbacks (feeling like the trauma is happening again)
  • Nightmares of either frightening things or of the event
  • Loss of interest in life and daily activities
  • Feeling emotionally numb and detached from other people
  • Sense of a not leading a normal life (not having a positive outlook of your future)
  • Avoiding certain activities, feelings, thoughts or places that remind you of the tragedy
  • Difficulty remembering important aspects of a tragic event​.
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When a loved one is experiencing these symptoms, it is often family members who suddenly have to learn to understand these symptoms, but also live with a person who is exhibiting behaviour that is drastically different then the person you have grown to know.

​You may start feeling signs of the following:

  • Sympathy (compassion for your loved one)
  • Depression (feel hopeless and helpless)
  • Fear and worry (not knowing what will happen next, dealing with loved ones emotional instability)
  • Avoidance (going out with friends, family, to events)
  • Guilt and shame (unable to help your loved one)
  • Anger (why did this happen to us)
  • Negative feelings (I don’t know if I can handle this)
  • Drug and alcohol abuse (utilizing this to cope with loved one)
  • Sleep problems (feeling the restlessness of your loved one, your own worry)
  • Health problems (often stress leads to health problems such as: gastrointestinal issues, headaches)

If you are experiencing these feelings, you are not alone.

​Here are some tips you can consider to help your loved one, and focus on self-care.​

  • Learn as much as you can about PTSD. Knowing how PTSD affects people may help you understand what your family member is going through. The more you know, the better you and your family can handle PTSD.​
  • Offer to go to doctor visits with your family member. You can help keep track of medicine and therapy, and you can be there for support.

  • Tell your loved one you want to listen and that you also understand if he or she doesn’t feel like talking.
  • Plan family activities together, like having dinner or going to a movie.
  • Take a walk, go for a bike ride, or do some other physical activity together. Exercise is important for health and helps clear your mind.
  • Encourage contact with family and close friends. A support system will help your family member get through difficult changes and stressful times.

Your family member may not want your help.

​If this happens, keep in mind that withdrawal can be a symptom of PTSD. A person who withdraws may not feel like talking, taking part in group activities, or being around other people. Give your loved one space, but tell him or her that you will always be ready to help.

STRATEGIES TO CARE FOR YOURSELF

  • Don’t feel guilty or feel that you have to know it all. Remind yourself that nobody has all the answers. It’s normal to feel helpless at times.​
  • Don’t feel bad if things change slowly. You cannot change anyone. People have to change themselves.​
  • Offer to go to doctor visits with your family member. You can help keep track of medicine and therapy, and you can be there for support.

  • Tell your loved one you want to listen and that you also understand if he or she doesn’t feel like talking.
  • Plan family activities together, like having dinner or going to a movie.
  • Take a walk, go for a bike ride, or do some other physical activity together. Exercise is important for health and helps clear your mind.
  • Encourage contact with family and close friends. A support system will help your family member get through difficult changes and stressful times.

​RESOURCES AVAILABLE

The following resources can help provide information and tools to assist in education and self care.

​MOBILE APPS

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OSI Connect: OSI Clinic Network

OSI Connect is a free mental health learning and self-management mobile app developed to help OSI patients and their families understand the nature of operational stress injuries (OSIs) and to provide help through the OSI Clinic Network across Canada. The resources on OSI Connect address challenges including post-traumatic stress and triggers, depression, anger, sleep problems, substance abuse, stress management and more.

PTSD Coach Canada

The PTSD Coach Canada app can help you learn about and manage symptoms that can occur after trauma.  Features include:

  • Reliable information on PTSD and treatments that work
  • Convenient, easy-to-use tools to help you handle stress symptoms
  • Direct links to support and help

CALM

Calm offers a wide range of guided meditations to assist people in adding more relaxation into their lives. The selections range from 3-minute to 25-minute sessions. It also includes a feature called Daily Calm, a 10-minute program you can practice before the beginning or end of your day — a great routine to get into. There are also breathing exercises, unguided meditations, sleep stories, and more than 25 soothing sounds to help you improve your sleep

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

The Tema Conter Memorial TrustThe Tema Conter Memorial Trust was established to honour the memory of Ms. Tema Conter, and to raise public awareness of the psychological stressors faced by our public safety and military personnel. Support provided for first responders and their families.

After The Call 
Resources for first responders and their families.

Badge of Life Canada
A peer-led charitable volunteer organization committed to supporting police and corrections personnel who are dealing with psychological injuries diagnosed from service.

Bellwood Health Services
Bellwood Health Services is a Centre of Excellence and an internationally recognized leader in evidence-based treatment of addiction and mental health problems.

Camp FACES
Supporting first responders and their families

Canadian Critical Incident Stress Foundation
The CCISF is a national charitable organization dedicated to the mitigation of disabling stress and the fight against Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We are Canada’s leader in providing organizational support, education, team development, training and family support for our Emergency Services.

Canadian Mental Health Association
As a nation-wide, voluntary organization, the Canadian Mental Health Association promotes the mental health of all and supports the resilience and recovery of people experiencing mental illness. The CMHA accomplishes this mission through advocacy, education, research and service.

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health
CAMH is Canada’s largest mental health and addiction teaching hospital, as well as one of the world’s leading research centres in the area of addiction and mental health. CAMH combines clinical care, research, education, policy development and health promotion to help transform the lives of people affected by mental health and addiction issues.

C.O.P.E. (Couples Overcoming PTSD Everyday)
“COPE” or “Couples Overcoming PTSD Everyday” is a new and innovative program that uses the power of the “group” to learn how to manage PTSD in the home. Treating the individual diagnosed with PTSD in isolation misses a major component on the path to better health and happier life.

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Sandra Richardson, RP

REGISTERED PSYCHOTHERAPIST Sandra retired from a 30 year career as a Police Officer, and is now a therapist at Dig A Little Deeper, Psychotherapy & Counselling in Bolton, ON.

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