Anna Garrison, ASW
Registered Associate CSW
First of all, I would love to take this opportunity to express my deep gratitude to those of you who have contributed to the First Responder Scholarship Fund. This fund ensures any local first responder who receives services through Anew Day does so at no cost to them. I know I can speak on behalf of myself, Anew Day, and the first responders who have benefitted from this fund in saying a heartfelt “Thank You!” I know it matters deeply to them that their community cares enough about their well-being to ensure they have access to no cost services when needed.
As I reflect on what to share with you, I find myself both humbled and deeply grateful for the privilege I have of knowing and serving some of the first responders in our community. Our first responder population is comprised of a special breed of people who show up 24/7, day after day to help, serve, and protect our community. While they may at times be referred to as “heroes,” I don’t know many who would actually claim that title. If you call them a hero, they would likely shrug it off and say something like, “I’m just doing my job.” While that may be accurate, the reality is that some jobs automatically come with a higher price tag than others…and the price to serve the community is often paid by the first responder and their family in the form of their health and well-being.
Our first responders show up on people’s worst days, and often when people are at their worst. They experience all the tragedies that can befall humans or be done by humans. They see the worst days, the bad days, the not so good days, and the days when people are overwhelmed and irritated and the first responder may become the easiest target for frustration, anger, and biting words. Let’s be honest, no one calls a first responder when things are going well.
Society expects a lot from our first responders. In fact, we usually expect nothing less than perfection from these people who show up daily and are doing their best to serve others. While many people express deep gratitude for their service, first responders are in the spotlight constantly, and the loudest voices are often the most critical. The actions and motives of our first responders are often questioned, and every part of their split-second decisions during an incident are poured over with the commodity of time and a fine-tooth comb. They are often judged in the court of public opinion, and public opinion can be quite unforgiving.
Off the job, people want to hear their stories and often ask about their worst calls…but what is often not understood is that those are the calls they carry with them. These are the calls that end in sleepless nights and continue to accumulate over the years. When you ask, they might smile, make a joke, and change the subject, but what you don’t see are the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and stress responses that are burned deep into their brains. “You’ve changed,” might be the comment they hear from friends or family members throughout the years…and the reality is, they have. They have dealt with the bad, the tragic, the worst of humanity, and the worst humanity can go through, and that adds up. They (and their families) often pay the price so the rest of us can live relatively safe lives, knowing they will continue to respond whenever we may need them.
In having the privilege of working with first responders in a therapeutic capacity, I have seen firsthand the toll that cumulative stress can have on them. When perfection is expected, criticism is constant, and exposure to human suffering is a daily occurrence, it comes at a cost to their mental and emotional well-being and to their personal lives. The message to them for many years has been, “Do better, work harder, be tougher” …and if for some reason they make a mistake or struggle with what they have dealt with on the job, they may somehow be viewed as defective. But let me tell you, our first responders are not defective. They just deal with far more than most of us can imagine. The reality is many first responders struggle in silence because they are expected to be impervious and seeking support can somehow be seen as showing weakness. But let me also tell you, our first responders are not weak. Statistics are challenging, but it is thought that most people will experience approximately 40 traumatic incidents during the course of a lifetime. It is estimated that our first responders experience somewhere between 900 and 1200 traumatic incidents in the course of a 25-30 year career. That takes a lot of strength to endure.
What happens though, when the ones who do so much to serve and support others might just need some support themselves? Unfortunately, there are often very few culturally competent, affordable services available for first responders and their unique needs. But that’s where your support comes in. Because of contributions to the First Responder Support Fund, Anew Day has been able to provide support to our local first responders, especially in the form of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. EMDR therapy is one of the most effective therapies in decreasing the level of disturbance still experienced related to past incidents. One method of EMDR for recent traumatic events (usually only requiring several sessions) has been shown to reduce the chances of developing post-traumatic stress symptoms by 85-90% if used within the first couple of months after an incident (which is also available to our first responders at Anew Day). As you can imagine, this can be a significant help to first responders who are exposed to far more traumatic incidents than the general public. Our first responders give a lot of themselves, and they have earned our gratitude and support.
Whether the concern is work-related, family-related, or something else, our goal at Anew Day is to be able to continue supporting our local first responders as they continue showing up for us.