First responders’ continuous exposure to traumatic events can lead to various occupational stress injuries. The Centre for Suicide Prevention carried out a study that concluded that “first responders experience PTSD at twice the rate of the average population.” Empathy fatigue, also known as vicarious trauma or secondary stress, can often mirror the symptoms of PTSD, making it sometimes difficult to separate the two.

Know How to Recognize the Symptoms

The daily stresses that first responders encounter when completing their work take a toll on their emotional, mental, and physical health. The unfortunate fact is many first responders go into their professions because of their caring and empathetic nature. Being susceptible to the emotional stress of those they encounter and care for is often a harmful side effect of their profession.

According to the Canadian Medical Association, some of the symptoms and side effects of emotional trauma can include:

  • Feeling easily overwhelmed or hopeless,
  • Finding difficulty concentrating and making decisions,
  • Having trouble sleeping or experiencing frequent nightmares,
  • Feeling increasingly irritable, angry, sad, or depressed,
  • Losing interest in tasks that you previously enjoyed,
  • Becoming isolated and withdrawn from others,
  • Increasing the use of substances to self-medicate, and
  • Feeling detached or emotionally numb.

Responsibilities of an Employer

Employers in the workplace have a responsibility for understanding the stresses their staff may be experiencing, recognizing the symptoms of empathy fatigue and PTSD, and offering methods of support. Organizations such as the TIC Training Center have begun to provide training and certification to individuals and organizations to become ‘trauma-informed’ to improve abilities to recognize early warning signs and ways of dealing with them effectively.

Prioritizing Your Mental Health Above all Else

The continuous exposure to suffering and loss of life that first responders experience can quickly result in empathy fatigue, later evolving into emotional trauma and PTSD. It is vital for individuals to prioritize their own mental health needs and well-being in any profession. Reaching out to friends, family, or a support group is recommended as a first step if symptoms, as mentioned above, are evident. Many resources are available for first responders with the Honour House Society, the First Responder Support Network, the Canadian Mental Health Association, and more.