Secondary trauma can affect anyone in a helping profession, and first responders are especially at risk. Many first responders affected by secondary trauma are experiencing compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is an emotional response to being repeatedly exposed to the trauma of others which causes symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder such as heightened awareness, anger, or disassociation. First responders can save someone from an overdose but cannot force the overdose victim to get treatment, thus responders may save the same person multiple times leading to a sense of futility. The lack of available substance abuse treatment facilities also contributes to the first responder’s feelings of frustration as they often cannot even recommend somewhere for treatment. Many have resigned, knowing that they will be called to the same location repeatedly until the victim can no longer be saved.
Compassion fatigue needs to be acknowledged and treated. Ohio recognizes the impact of compassion fatigue for first responders and has dedicated funding from the 21st Century Cures Act to address the issue of secondary trauma. It is important for every first responder to self-monitor and make self-care a priority, including seeking help before compassion fatigue leads to burnout. One easy way to self-check for compassion fatigue is to take the Professional Quality of Life Elements Theory and Measurement. This free measurement tool can help you gauge your level of professional stress, satisfaction and what to consider when suffering from secondary trauma.
What May Help
To help combat compassion fatigue, it is important to practice self-care by getting enough sleep, good nutrition, and exercise. Try to find things that bring joy to your life to help balance the trauma found on the job. Get to know your co-workers on a more personal level to develop relationships beyond reliving the stresses of the job. Take time together to celebrate successes and to grieve losses. SAMHSA has a great resource to help understand the signs of compassion fatigue, ways to help yourself, and when to get professional help.
Addiction is a disease that is often misunderstood. Recent advancements in science have determined that the brain, genes, and environment all play a role in addiction, debunking the idea that addiction is a choice. Believing that addiction is an active choice and that the victim should be able to control substance use and stop before overdosing contributes to anger toward the victim. When first responders develop the mindset that addiction is a disease that requires treatment and vigilance for remission, much like other chronic diseases, they are less likely to develop strong feelings of futility.
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