Vicarious Trauma: The Effects on First Responders by Dr. Deb and Damedrist Wright, MS SFC (RET)
Vicarious Trauma: The Effects on First Responders by Dr. Deb and Damedrist Wright, MS SFC (RET)

As our lives and lifestyles become increasingly complex and hectic, resilience has become an ever more important skill to have. First responders who are exposed to disruptive events involving death, violence, or life-threatening situations on a daily basis are in special need of this valuable trait. When traumatic events occur, the impact can have an overwhelming effect on a first responder in various ways depending on the location, severity, and length of time being exposed to complex stressors.

Researchers are looking at different ways first responders react to traumatic events as an individual and during on-scene responses within a community. Common side effects of exposure may involve secondary traumatic stress, compassion fatigue, and burnout. Helping first responders develop resilience by training them to look at the positive consequences of dealing with traumatic events versus the negative consequences is one method for increasing resilience. One potential focal point for shaping this more productive sense of resiliency involves developing an individual’s sense of self-efficacy.

Self-efficacy is an individual’s belief in themselves to achieve some degree of success in a given situation. It includes having the courage to believe you’ll make it through when faced with various traumatic events. First responders must feel confident and in control of their efforts in assisting people even when the situation presents some major challenges. This helps reduce the levels of distress and symptoms associated with vicarious trauma. Also, self-efficacy is important collectively to a group of first responders who need to work together during a traumatic event to achieve success in helping people involved in the incident. Call it *group efficacy. *

Leadership also needs to be aware of the importance of the individual and group efficacy vibe in order to stay focused on this quality as a pathway to build-up their resilience towards traumatic events. This may require focused training on how to identify positive factors rather than negative. It also involved mindfulness on the part of supervisors and a habit of praising and encouraging team members. Unfortunately, negative comments and attitudes are “stickier” than positive, and it will take work to build up the mental and coaching habits necessary for consistent success.

It is a quiet but powerful fact that when leaders express their own memories and feelings about possible mental and emotional obstacles, by sharing their experiences in the field, it opens the doorway for the team to authentically follow this lead. First responders, whether frontline or supervisory, do well to discuss some of their challenges from both their past and most recent traumatic events with their peers. These experiences shared amongst each other can assist in building resilience and confidence in facing challenges in high-risk professions.

In addition to the on-going messages about efficacy and resilience that leaders and trainers can provide, counselors, spiritual leaders, and therapists can partner when needed to reinforce these skills. By developing a community mindset and promoting a culture of openness, mutual support, and learning, high-risk professionals can better serve each other and members of the public. If you hear comments about the “weakness” associated with talking about vicarious and cumulative stress or the “stigma” of seeking assistance, know that you’re hearing from someone who is not keeping up with scientifically sound research and best practice standards in the high-risk professions. Skilled and “in the know” professionals have made the shift towards self-care and mutual support of colleagues as critical professional activities. Being prepared to do the job means using every resource available to realistically train for and regroup from the day-to-day impact on the self and the team when serving the public.