Dr. Shannon Doyle, who runs his own counseling practice in Arlington Heights and is affiliated with Northwest Hospital, took the time to talk with The Cardinal (Arlingtoncardinal.com) about the unique stress and mental health issues that affect first responders and emergency personnel. Dr. Doyle provides interesting real world examples, as well as solid, no-nonsense advice to these hard working professionals who consistently face ‘extreme stress’ situations.
AC: What unique stresses do first responders need to be aware of?
SD: Although first responders – those who provide emergency services to those in trouble, such as firemen, police officers, emergency room doctors, nurses and paramedics – find tremendous rewards and fulfillment through the much needed services, their work is extremely stressful, and often hard to let go of when they leave their workplace. They may find themselves remembering painful details of their day and find it hard to let go of the trauma they see.
First responders want to be able to save the day in each and every situation. However, many times these specific circumstances do not allow for a happy ending. “Joe” for example, was responding to a car accident during an ice storm. As soon as he pulled up in the rescue squad, he could see from the position of the victim’s body that seconds counted in order to save the victim’s life. The victim was unconscious and likely had an obstructed airway or had already stopped breathing. Because of snow and ice, Joe couldn’t park close to the wrecked car, and although he arrived at the accident scene quickly, he was unable to get any traction as he tried to walk toward them, and was unable to work effectively because of deep snow and unsteady footing. He felt frustrated and utterly helpless for that rescue. When Joe was at home his next night off, he found it hard to fall asleep. He kept reliving the accident over and over. With this and other stressful calls, he found it increasingly hard to sleep, thinking there was more he could have done. He found it hard to focus on his work. He began drinking more heavily to try to relieve these thoughts, but it didn’t help. He felt that he couldn’t talk to his coworkers, because in his line of work he believes he is expected to take care of his own problems. Even as months passed, he found that the memories of this accident, especially, never went away. He found himself troubled by the images of that terrible accident. He continued drinking more, felt terrible about himself, and gradually withdrew from friends and colleagues.
AC: So do you think emergency personnel are more conditioned to ignore chronic stress symptoms?
SD: In a word, yes. Emergency personnel are generally trained to be ready at all times, to fix any and all problems. They are trained to be tough, self-reliant and excellent at everything they do. They may need to make quick decisions in the moment that may have far-reaching consequences. It is certainly understandable why the extreme stress that emergency personnel undergo daily could cause them lead to extreme physical and emotional distress. But many emergency professionals insist on being self-reliant and keep their personal feelings private.
AC: Do you think there is enough awareness of this issue among first responders and emergency personnel?
SD: No. First responders are generally trained to take care of others first and to not focus on their own needs. Certainly promoting a more open and accepting environment for first responders to discuss their professional experiences and feelings would greatly increase the awareness of the personal challenges of first responders and create a more open dialogue among emergency professionals. Seeing a therapist would provide the added benefit of privacy. Therapists in general believe that the content of therapy sessions is completely private and confidential.
AC: What are typical signs of stress to recognize for first responders where they might benefit from counseling services?
SD: First responders may have difficulty sleeping, eating, or may have recurrent thoughts of traumatic experiences on the job. Many emergency personnel may try to make these feelings go away by drinking too much or using other drugs. Those who have these symptoms may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or depression. Although first responders may deny these symptoms, they are in fact, fairly common.
AC: Can first responders take advantage of counseling via their insurance?
SD: Many emergency personnel do not know that they have medical benefits that would allow them to meet with a therapist with complete confidentiality and with little expense to them. Oftentimes, when emergency personnel learn that they can be seen for as little as $10 per session, they are more willing to consider seeing a therapist. Also knowing how their privacy is protected in therapy leads emergency personnel to feel more comfortable in talking to a therapist.
Learn More about Dr. Doyle and Counseling Services in and around Arlington Heights at: