We’ve all heard about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in first responders, also known as cumulative stress disorder.

We hear about it in our servicemen and women. We’ve all heard about colleagues in EMS, fire and law enforcement struggling through a terrible call that changed the course of their career.

What do we do when we can’t point to a specific event or call but feel the symptoms of PTSD?

PTSD symptoms — which can be upsetting memories, trouble sleeping or jittery feelings — often can develop unexpectedly, without a specific trigger event that can be pinpointed. The reason is likely cumulative stress — when small-scale events build on each other.

The difficulty with PTSD in first responders is that it’s hard to spot. It’s easy to hear about a mass casualty incident, an active shooter or any number of large-scale, high-visibility incidents and think, “Wow, someone should check on those providers.”

But when we look at a colleague who responds to a call that wouldn’t bother others, we may fail to realize that colleague might be experiencing that call through the lens of divorce, multiple overtime shifts or a sick child at home. All of a sudden, one call can be highly damaging, even if it doesn’t seem to be noteworthy.

As we look to improve mental and emotional health awareness in civil service, there’re a few key things to remember.

Check how you respond to bad calls

First, your response to bad calls can make the difference in helping our colleagues heal. Every single call we face affects people differently.

A bad call is defined a little differently by each and every provider we know. Past history, circumstance and current life events will change how people are affected by calls as first responders.

For example, look at providers you know and how they were affected by a pediatric call before and after they had children of their own.

PTSD in first responders is real and it’s OK to need help

Second, it’s OK to be OK — and it’s OK to be … not OK.

Just as your interpretation of a bad call is different from person to person, so too is your response. Just because the call sounds bad to you does not mean your partner needs to be taken out of service.

Some people need to maintain normalcy as a mechanism to heal from PTSD, while others need time to process and rest. Each individual’s psychological first aid is just as unique as that person.

I encourage you to offer support to one another. But never force support unless an individual is a threat to the well-being of themselves or someone else.

Finally, please remember that each one of us experiences every day a little differently. Look after one another and keep your brothers and sisters in this field in check.

Want to learn more about PTSD in first responders?

Read this blog post on the importance of self-care and how to reduce your own cumulative stress in your day-to-day routine.

Take our course Individual ALS L-11 — Includes Psych and Behavioral Emergencies, Field Triage MCI today.