By Sarah Guenette, IPSA Mental Health Committee Member and Learning & Development Manager, CCS Safety Champion, Calgary Community Standards
A strong support network is critical for first responders to maintain good mental health. Spouses/partners play a key role in this. Spouses are likely to notice early warning signs that their loved one is possibly struggling with a mental health issue, organizational stress, or cumulative stress symptoms such as burnout, compassion fatigue or morale injury. For spouses to be aware of potential warning signs first responder couples should establish effective communication techniques built on trust, honesty and respect.
The nature of first responder work and the culture that goes with it tends to isolate its members. They are often unable or unwilling to share details of their work with their spouse. This is due to the requirement for confidentiality, but also the desire not to inflict vicarious trauma on their loved ones. It can be challenging for the partner at home to know that their spouse has another life when they put on their uniform. Spouses must accept this fact and learn techniques to manage any resentment or mistrust that comes with it.
To cope with this, it’s helpful to get to know the other supportive people in the first responder’s life – spouses should get to know their first responder’s partner and attend functions such as Christmas parties to get to know teammates and supervisors. The first responder should encourage this. Knowing the other members in a spouse’s support network will help to build the trust.
After a busy shift or following a stressful event, first responders often require some time alone to decompress when they get home. Due to the separation between their work life and their home life, it can be challenging for them to quickly move out of the first responder mindset and into the husband/wife/father/mother mindset. Until they have made that shift into their “at home” roles, conversation will be unproductive and potentially lead to conflict.
However, the first responder needs to understand that their spouse and family need them, and they cannot isolate themselves at the expense of that. It is a good strategy to set a time limit for decompression time and let the spouse know how long is needed (ex., “I just need 20 mins and then I’ll be back”). The spouse then knows that they will have an opportunity to reconnect and talk after the first responder has destressed from the events of their shift.
An early warning sign of potential stress problems is too much isolation. If a first responder is distancing themselves from their spouse, family and friends on a regular basis or for long periods, the spouse should talk to them and, if applicable, seek advice on how to handle the situation. Spouses might suggest accessing support services offered by the agency such as peer support, chaplaincy or psychological services. These services are also often available to family so couples should research what their specific agency offers.
First responders are trained to keep their emotions in check and will sometimes resist opening to their spouse for fear of losing control or showing weakness. This can lead to unhealthy coping techniques such as distancing/social isolation, alcohol use or drug use. First and foremost it is important for them to know that showing emotions and opening up to their spouse is safe. The spouse should reassure them that it is a safe place where they will not be judged and that they will support and advocate for them.
Active listening is a skill that should be practiced by both the first responder and the spouse to ensure there is open and respectful communication. Without active listening a person can quickly start to feel undervalued and start keeping things to themselves.
It is important to note that when a first responder is in a decompression phase, they probably won’t be able to actively listen. They need to be fully focused and engaged in the conversation. Trying to get them to actively listen before they are ready will prove frustrating for the spouse.
Active listening is not just hearing what the person is saying but focusing on what they are saying. When a first responder opens to a spouse there are four areas that the spouse should be concentrating on:
- What is being said – actual words.
- How it is being said – inflection, tone and body language.
- When it is being said – what does the timing say about what is being said?
- What is not being said – are they avoiding or leaving things out?
Active listening can also entail asking clarifying questions and summarizing back to the speaker what they said to ensure it was heard correctly.
Empathy and appreciation
Empathy and intentional appreciation are critical in any relationship. Making these a priority contributes to strong communication. Each person in the relationship needs to feel that they are valued for what they contribute.
Since first responders work shift work and need time to decompress, spouses may feel resentful that they are “doing nothing” while the spouse has been managing the home and family alone during the shift rotation. As mentioned above, an understanding of the need for decompression time is important as is establishing limits on it. Likewise, the first responder needs to have an appreciation and empathize with their spouse who has stressors in their role too.
If the first responder is never contributing that could be an early warning sign and should be discussed, especially if they are sleeping a lot and appear to be lethargic or have stopped taking an interest in activities they previously enjoyed.
Critical incidents, crisis stress response and occupational stress injuries can all affect a first responder. Spouses should take the time to research the stressors of first responder life and be attuned to early warning signs. First responders too should try to be self-aware and let someone know if they are concerned about themselves.
Critical incident stress is “A state of cognitive, physical, emotional and behavioral arousal that accompanies the crisis reaction…If not managed and resolved appropriately, either by oneself or with assistance, it may lead to several psychological disorders”. First responders may take a while to talk about a critical incident. It’s important for those around them to be patient and be on the lookout for warning signs (increased alcohol use, lethargy, social isolation, hypervigilance).
It is recommended to take a three-step approach to deal with any critical stress symptoms:
- Find the root cause – work back from the symptoms to find when they started and what the trigger was.
- Deal with it head on – any struggles identified must be addressed immediately. Seek whatever additional resources are needed.
- Take time to recover- it is a difficult time for both the first responder and the spouse so it’s important that both recover from the stress inherent in the journey back to health.
There is no relationship more impactful to one’s mental health than that with a spouse. Given the stressors of the job, first responder marriages can be challenging. Having strong and respectful communication strategies is key to ensuring that the first responder and spouse are both willing to be open about stressors they are encountering and be committed to staying mentally healthy together. Spouses need to be aware of first responder culture and the specific stress responses inherent in it. Understanding can prevent resentment and frustration and help them to be proactive in supporting their loved one.
Most importantly, if a first responder is struggling with stress, addiction or another form of mental health concern, they must feel comfortable to talk about it. The spouse is the main source of support in accessing additional resources. Investing time in forging strong communication skills, trust and appreciation is the best investment that can be made to create a lasting and loving first responder relationship.
Sarah Guenette, M.A., is the Learning & Development Manager for Calgary Community Standards. Sarah has a background in 9-1-1 and was a call evaluator, dispatcher and operations manager for over 10 years. She has overseen the Psychological Health and Safety portfolio for Calgary Community Standards since 2013 and is passionate about creating and maintaining a healthy workplace for employees. Sarah is also a proud first responder spouse to a Calgary Police Service Officer.
IPSA Infographic: Support for First Responder Spouses
IPSA Infographic: Staying Healthy Together in First Responder Couples
Webinar: Your Strength Keeps You Safe
Webinar: Heroes are Human Too - Depression, PTSD & Suicide
Webinar: Fighting addiction in EMS/Healthcare