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First RespondersLaw EnforcementMental HealthWork-Life Balance

How Family and Friends Can Support a First Responder’s Mental Health

police officers


When a first responder eats healthily at home and gets eight hours sleep, and works on their physical health, their job is positively impacted.  By the same token, when they are satisfied with their job and feel supported in their role, their family life is positively impacted.

Whether you are a friend or family member, you can help them find synergy in their life and impact their well-being. Synergy is about a connection between work and family and the ability to communicate and collaborate about their well-being whether at work or at home.

Be a Good Listener

listening for mental health

Where do you start if you have not learned about the impact of secondary traumatic stress, vicarious trauma or moral injury? What do you do when you don’t know what to do? Start with the basics.

  • Make eye contact, especially when your first responder is sharing traumatic material.
  • Don’t interrupt while they are speaking. Let the conversation take place as slowly as they need it to be.
  • Don’t overreact or jump to conclusions. Ask questions to clarify what was just said.
  • Don’t try to fix the problem or probe for details that you may not be able to handle. Leave that to trained peers, online peer support and mental health professionals. You don’t have to find a solution to their problem. Your role is to support them as best you can while they figure out what healthy coping strategies will work best.
  • Recognize how their well-being has been impacted. There is no magic formula for them to survive and thrive in their job. But there is a powerful bond that takes place when first responders share their vulnerability, anxieties, and fears with a family member or friend who gets it.

Common Problems First Responders Face

Emergency personnel may feel as though they are always on the job and are inadequate outside of their role. Chronic stressors such as disturbed sleep and insomnia take a toll. Add to the mix unhealthy coping and thoughts of suicide. When you understand the mental health challenges they are dealing with, your awareness helps them see that they are not alone, and that help is available.

Community Stressors

law enforcement officers

While they support the community and deal with trauma, they deal with negative public practices that are sometimes violent confrontations. Law enforcement officers (LEOs), in particular, are dealing with calls for defunding the police and negative media coverage.

Workplace Stressors

first respondersFirst responders may have a supervisor who does not recognize their value, has a poor discipline style, or frequently criticizes or second guesses them. They may be dealing with denied requests for days off, have confidentiality issues, or are being sexually harassed. Their stress levels are influenced by bureaucracy, long work hours, shiftwork, night shift, excessive overtime, and work schedules.

Dangerous situations and the possibility of being injured can weigh heavily on their heart and mind. They may be dealing with traumatic events, critical incidents, serious accidents, and exposure to suffering or failed attempts at resuscitation, which can take a toll.

Family Problems

Family problems include finances, intimacy and sex, child rearing, not spending enough time together due to shift work and long hours, household tasks and communication. They may work on the holidays or have a second job. Long hours may leave little time for family events.

They may miss their child’s sports activities and feel guilty about their lack of presence. It is hard to set a goal to be there for a spouse, children and significant others when a first responder is not even present for themself. Although they show up, something is missing.

The problems at work may match in number the problems at home and can include marital difficulties, being a single parent, being absent from family functions, and last-minute plan cancellation. They may be fearful of the worst happening to them or their family, which causes emotional distress and intensely makes them see how the fragility of life is.

Recognize the impact of work-family conflict, which is the pressure between work and family life and how it conflicts and interferes in both their personal and professional space.

Useful Coping Strategies

Consider taking a yoga class together or some other physical activity, getting a couple’s massage, praying together, or volunteering on the same committees. It is a gentle process of moving into what a first responder needs without overwhelming them. Work as a team and check in with one another.

Many studies point to the value of mindfulness and peer support programs, so suggest that they reach out to a trained peer, as well. Although you can only do so much when they have anxiety issues, post-traumatic stress, suffer from clinical depression or have thoughts of suicide, you can be the beacon that shines a light on the value of calling 988. This confidential suicide lifeline is there for anyone needing emotional support, whether that is your first responder or yourself.

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Barbara is a leading authority and best-selling author on managing burnout, secondary traumatic stress, compassion fatigue, and vicarious trauma. As a nationally recognized keynote speaker, she motivates audiences to build their resilience and create work-life balance. Her programs help leaders and teams manage workplace chronic stressors and get over burnout at work.

Barbara's newest book, "But I Didn't Say Goodbye: Helping Families After a Suicide", is available now on Amazon -

• Three weeks prior to giving birth to triplets, her father died by suicide. Her story was featured in the Emmy award winning documentary, Fatal Mistakes, Families Shattered by Suicide narrated by Mariette Hartley. Many employees are grieving personal loss. She offers programs for leaders on lost productivity and performance while managing grief at work.

• As a sought-after keynote speaker who has presented to over 500 groups since 1991, including corporations, state and national associations and non-profit organizations, Barbara offers work-life balance strategies for leaders to implement right away. With clarity and humor, her speaking engagements are designed to give audiences powerful and practical strategies of work-life balance, wellbeing, and self-care that can be implemented immediately.

• Barbara is a Board-Certified Expert in Traumatic Stress and Diplomate with the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. She received a Bachelor of Science in psychology and a Master of Arts degree in community health, with a concentration in thanatology, both from Brooklyn College.


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