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What first responders should seek in mental health clinicians

Ongoing exposure to trauma can often affect a person’s ability to function both in their personal and professional life


A career in public safety is unlike any other.


By Heather Lemke, NCC, LCPC, Clinical Content Coordinator, Acadia Healthcare

A career in public safety is unlike any other. Police officers, firefighters, and paramedics wake up each morning with the mission of keeping communities safe—often risking their own lives to protect others. While these noble professions can be exceptionally rewarding, they also regularly expose men and women to traumatic scenes and situations that can challenge their ability to cope with stress.

This ongoing exposure to trauma can often affect a person’s ability to function both in their personal and professional life. In many cases, continual trauma can lead to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When this happens, treatment may be needed to help a public safety professional live a healthy and full life.

Knowing When to Get Help is Crucial

Nowadays, people are a bit more aware of how mental health treatment can help alleviate emotional upheaval. In fact, many police and fire departments have taken steps to make sure first responders are maintaining their emotional wellness throughout their careers. For example, many departments offer employee assistance programs, or EAPs, that can give public safety professionals access to mental health services. However, these programs are often not enough.

Both administrators and public safety professionals must recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma and know when to seek additional care. Some of the signs of PTSD include experiencing flashbacks, frequently feeling uneasy, or suffering from sleep problems. Additionally, unprovoked emotional outbursts, hypervigilance, profound anxiety, oscillating moods, and emotional detachment can often serve as warnings that a person needs help.

Agencies that offer EAPs can refer police, firefighters, and paramedics to providers who specialize in treating those who work in public safety. However, if the symptoms of PTSD are not detected by an individual’s employer, but he or she notices them in him or herself, it is important to seek treatment independently. It is critical to find a mental health professional who is trained in providing treatment care designed to heal and overcome the effects of trauma.

Selecting a Clinician

Much like a cardiologist knows the ins and outs of the human heart in a way that’s more extensive than a general practitioner, clinicians who specialize in treating trauma are more familiar with the multifaceted nature of trauma than mental health professionals. Trauma-trained clinicians can address the sensitive nature of a public safety professional’s experiences.

Receiving specialized trauma treatment from an experienced clinician can make a huge difference for police officers, firefighters, and paramedics. These clinicians typically demonstrate the compassion, empathy, patience, and understanding of their specific experiences that can make for a holistic and transformative treatment experience. A positive experience is important because it often leads public safety professionals to refer their coworkers for treatment if they also start to face trauma-related concerns.

Techniques Used by Trauma-Trained Clinicians

Clinicians trained in trauma use a host of therapeutic techniques and approaches when working with public safety professionals. Some of these techniques include:

  • Prolonged exposure therapy. This can give public safety professionals the relaxation and coping techniques that can help them manage the stress of their careers.
  • Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT).This gives police, firefighters, and paramedics the ability to recognize problematic and negative thoughts, and replace them with positive ones that can support positive behaviors.
  • Didactic behavior therapy. This teaches techniques that can help public safety professionals practice mindfulness so that they can manage turmoil and their emotions in more effective ways.
  • Experiential therapies. Therapies like hypnosis, breathwork, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and somatic experiencing can assist first responders in developing a greater understanding of how trauma impacts their minds and bodies. It can also teach them the methods required to heal from the effects of past trauma.

These methods of care are just a few of the invaluable approaches that are used by trauma-trained clinicians to help restore wellness and happiness to the lives of public safety professionals struggling with trauma.

The Effectiveness of Trauma-Trained Clinicians

Fortunately, first responders are starting to recognize and understand the benefits of getting specialized trauma treatment. Now more than ever, public safety professionals are accessing services to heal and overcome trauma, and are sharing their positive experiences with peers.

For example, therapists across the country are able to work with a team of Treatment Placement Specialists who collaborate with the FBI National Academy Associates’ Officer Safety and Wellness program. This program offers police officers and other first responders mental health support and guidance to overcome the trials they face as public safety professionals. Fortunately, trauma-informed care is becoming more commonplace, and first responders are beginning to feel more comfortable seeking mental health treatment when they need it.

About the Author: Heather Lemke is a clinical content coordinator at Acadia Healthcare with six years of clinical experience working with a wide range of clientele. Heather is passionate about raising awareness and writing about current topics related to mental health. When not working, she enjoys spending time with her husband and young daughter, traveling, and learning about new approaches to treating mental health concerns. To contact the author, please email