From Compassion Fatigue to Burnout: The Risks of Neglecting First Responders Mental Health

As a first responder (including firefighters, police officers, emergency medical technicians or any other medical personnel), you learn, train, practice, and experience how to be there for others. But do you allow the space to be there for your heart, soul and mind? Your work day is spent helping others with crisis after crisis. Even if there are two similar situations, each situation can take a different toll on you emotionally. For those critical moments of emotional distress, who is saving you? Do you have the capacity to save yourself? Are there others around you who can support you?

Emergency situations can be chaos; no one is expected to be an expert in every situation.

The same can be said about emotions: emotions can be chaos; no one is expected to be an expert in every situation. An excellent place to start is connecting with the alarms in your environment. Connect with the dangers the alarms are warning you of and act accordingly. Don’t wait for someone else to help you; communicate with those around you and be your own hero. Those around you may not even know you are in trouble. Even if you are in a room surrounded by people, other people may be oblivious to your situation and have not figuratively called 911 for you. You are not alone. There are loved ones, co-workers, organizations, counsellors, etc., here to listen as a first step.

If you can obtain a safe and healthy life outside of work, you may be able to be there more for those who depend on you by replicating the safe and healthy mindset in your everyday work as well.

Counselling may be able to help with first responders mental health.

1 in 5 Canadians experience mental health problems per year (Smetanin et al., 2011). Being a first responder increases this risk with the overlaps in the types of trauma and other experiences you may endure. First responders counselling is a confidential treatment tailored to help professionals understand their experiences with no judgement. Therapy can help process emotions by validating your unique experiences and so much more. Seeking therapy can help you confront the trauma which may make it difficult for you to function in your daily life. Trauma is a normal human response to abnormal situations.

Below are a few more benefits of grief and trauma counselling:

  • Provides the understanding and empathy to start the healing process.
  • Helps reduce fear and avoidance of situations, people, or events.
  • Assists in developing and improving skills/ tools you need to function (some areas including communication skills, self-esteem, regulating feelings, etc.).
  • Changes the question of “what’s wrong with me?” to an empowering statement of “this is what’s going on with me.”
  • Improve connections with the family, friends, and others around you. Including your fellow first responders, who may also be suffering silently. When you allow yourself to be helped, you make it okay for them to get help, too.

If you or someone you know is experiencing any of the following symptoms, first responders counselling may be beneficial:

  • Avoidance of people, places or things related to the traumatic event(s)
  • Job-related stressors and burnout
  • Intrusive thoughts such as flashbacks and/ or nightmares
  • Emotional numbness, which could lead one to have a loss of interest in activities and/ or feeling detached from others
  • Negative thoughts and mood changes
  • Feeling guilt, shame, or feeling alone
  • Strained relationships
  • Problems with alcohol, drugs, or food
  • Feelings of hopelessness and suicidal ideation
  • Emotional distress
  • Sleep issues
These stressors may be related to repeated trauma exposure, the threat to personal safety, lack of sleep and long hours, which pose a significant risk to your mental health. Possible mental health disorders can include and are not limited to an increased risk of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, and other behavioural issues.

You Are Not Alone

Support is Available

It is challenging to seek counselling due to the many barriers to seeking mental health services. A significant contributing factor to the resistance comes from workplace culture. The workplace can emphasize never showing weakness, and those who do seek help are seen as vulnerable. Other barriers include the fear of rejection and exclusion from peers, job repercussions such as diminished capacity on the job, informal codes and treatment costs. On the other end, not seeking support can increase the negative symptoms and cause more harm to your life and those around you.

How can we help?

At As You Are Counselling, we are here to show you; you are not alone. It is okay to be vulnerable. Your mental health matters and we are here to help support you at your pace in ways that work for you. We can tailor therapeutic approaches to directly address ways to manage stress for each unique individual and to help provide you with the tools to help decrease your emotional distress. We offer individual, relationship, and family counselling for first responders and those close to first responders. Please visit our pricing page for more details.

Our team at As You Are Counselling are registered clinical counsellors specializing in helping difficult experiences and/ or traumatic events. We would be honoured to share this journey with you. Please feel free to contact us with any questions.

You Are There for Others, Let Us Be There For You

*If you or a loved one need immediate assistance, please call the B.C. Crisis Support Line (1-800-784-2433) or other emergency support lines on our frequently asked questions page.


Smetanin, P., Stiff, D., Briante, C., Adair, C.E., Ahmad, S., & Khan, M. (2011). The life and economic impact of major mental illnesses in Canada. Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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