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First Responders and Mental Health: Part 2

The Impact of PTSD on First Responders’ Interpersonal Relationships

First responders risk their lives on the front line each and every day to put others' needs ahead of their own safety and well-being. While exposing themselves to high levels of stress, repeated exposure to trauma, and limited sleep, first responders bear the greatest risk to their mental health.

Dealing with dangerous and sometimes life threatening situations on the job can result in long-term psychological trauma and effects. As a result of the ongoing stress associated with their job, first responders are commonly diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Without proper management, the behavioural and psychological symptoms of PTSD do not simply vanish when returning home after a shift; instead, many first responders struggle with them around the clock.

As an active first responder, it’s important to understand the effects of PTSD, and other common psychological disorders such as anxiety, and depression and how they play a role in your environment outside of work. From dealing with challenges unique to first responders, such as the long hours and shift work to its effects on marriage and other interpersonal relationships — we need to shine more light on this matter to truly begin influencing change.

Challenges Unique to First Responders that Impact Relationships

It’s no surprise that the demands of first responders are higher than others, especially since the onset of Covid-19. Whether its police services, firefighters, or paramedics the job demands can present some very unique challenges.

  1. Work Hours: first responders are likely to experience shift work, long hours, overnight shifts, and unpredictable scheduling.
  2. Physical Job Risks: during any given shift, first responders may be exposed to various risks in their external environment. This may include hazardous environments, assaults, motor vehicle accidents, contact with hazardous or infectious material, and so on.
  3. Psychological Job Risks: above all else, the psychological job risks associated with being a first responder is the most underestimated. While physical job risks can become life-threatening, psychological risks can pose serious problems too. From substance abuse, domestic violence and suicide, these occupational outcomes coupled with PTSD, anxiety, and depression can greatly impact life outside of work.

Effects on Marriage

There is a considerable amount of strain placed on the marriage of a first responder who faces these unique challenges day in and day out. First responders presenting symptoms of PTSD show similar patterns in terms of conflict, marital satisfaction, and divorce.

Sources of Conflict

Among the unique challenges listed above, most of them are also expressed as a major source of conflict in a marriage. While shift work or excessive overtime is common in this area of work, it can also disrupt family life. Spouses tend to spend holidays and social events alone, creating feelings of isolation and possible guilt from feeling resentful. Both of which can put a strain on a marriage.

On top of the usual marital issues couples deal with, there are additional PTSD-related challenges that cause even greater conflict. Symptoms ranging from headaches, nausea, sleeplessness, intrusive thoughts, difficulty trusting others, emotional numbing and sexual difficulties can create the perfect storm for relationship conflict.

Decreased Marital Satisfaction and Divorce Rates

While these problems cause ongoing strain and conflict in a marriage, the same factors commonly lead to a decreased marital satisfaction and divorce.

It’s true that relationships end for many reasons, but it’s important to be mindful that a first responder managing PTSD, anxiety, or depression may experience even greater complications leading up to divorce. This is why addressing your mental health early is so critical because the stress of divorce could potentially trigger or worsen these symptoms.

Impact on Other Interpersonal Relationships and Friendships

It’s common for first responders to feel isolated in their lives. While spending time with friends, family, or mental health professionals can be helpful, they may not open up to address their challenges with people who ‘may not get it’. This can lead to further isolation and numbing of experiences that are not healthy for anyone, especially those on the front line.

Depression and Lack of Interest

As mentioned as a source of conflict in marriages, emotional numbing can also present challenges in friendships and other interpersonal relationships. It’s important to note that the symptoms involved in emotional numbing can overlap with those involved in PTSD and depression.

Without proper management, many first responders risk further dissociation from friends and family without any sort of motivation to reach out for beneficial social support.

The Impact of Covid-19

Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, first responders have taken on even more than ever before. While having to handle Covid-19 patients at work, the added stress from their work environment is likely to contribute to an even greater strain at home.

Of the many people affected by the safety guidelines of the pandemic, first responders are now experiencing even more isolation. With limited external contact and social support, there is an even greater risk to mental health.

Final Thoughts

Dealing with marriage, kids, friendships, and other interpersonal relationships can all feel incredibly overwhelming, especially when symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, or depression are involved. Fortunately, there is a protective role in having a strong sense of community working as a first responder.

If you feel as though you don’t have the immediate support around you, there are numerous online resources that can set you on the right path. On Your Mind Counselling is a beneficial outlet if you or someone you know is struggling with mental health. It’s important to manage these symptoms early before it takes a toll on your marriage, friendships, or other interpersonal relationships.

Written by Laura Anderson, MA, MSW, RSW

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