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They Get by with a Little Help from Their Friends: First Responders and PTSD Part 2

Peer support is one of the most important elements of therapy for people with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Social engagement can help jump-start the brains of those suffering and help them get back to function and normalcy.

Formalized ad hoc peer support has become one of the primary hallmarks for socializing First Responders with PTSD. While these programs may differ from department to department, the basic premise is universal and has been proven successful.

Peer Counseling

The Toronto Transit Company implemented a peer counseling group in 2015 to help workers who witnessed suicides on subway tracks. The organization has since seen a reduction of 45% in related lost-time injuries following such incidents.

In Chicago, the Gatekeepers Peer Support Network is described as one of the most effective aspects of the Fire Department’s Employee Assistance Program.

Earlier this year, Georgia lawmakers considered a proposal to create a state-run program of peer counseling for First Responders at all levels of government, while Florida has enacted legislation to mandate mental health awareness training for First Responders.

Organizations that work with First Responders are increasingly warming up to the idea of formalized peer support. We know that social interaction is imperative to help calm the vagus nerve and aid recovery from PTSD. Socializing with others who have been through the same or similar traumas is the most effective way to do that, especially for First Responders. The camaraderie of the profession is one of the protective factors against developing PTSD. Sharing similar experiences with a peer engenders mutual trust that does not exist easily with a counselor outside the group. Formalized peer counseling programs go a long way in helping First Responders with PTSD — if they are created and implemented correctly.

Elements of Peer Counseling Programs

The Toronto Transit Company’s program is comprised of 14 employees, many of whom have experienced trauma on the job. They receive training for 3 days on how to support and encourage colleagues who have witnessed tragedies. The program is a model proved most effective.

Training for peer counselors typically involves a critical incident stress support — or crisis intervention, ethics and guidelines for the peer supporter. Those who volunteer to be involved must be recovered enough from any traumas they’ve experienced to be able to support someone else.

They may work with colleagues in a number of ways:

  • One-on-one support, such as mentoring and befriending
  • Reaching out to colleagues who have recently been exposed to a traumatic event
  • Participating in support groups that meet on a regular basis to provide mutual support
  • Providing community resources and professional intervention referrals
  • Assisting with goal setting

The idea of a peer counselor is not to replace a trained clinician or to try to fix a fellow employee. Instead, it is to help by relating to other workers in a way no one else can. Peer counselors provide empathy and encouragement to help the colleague face difficult situations in a safe, non-threatening manner.

The role of the peer counselor is to help and observe colleagues who have been through traumas. A person who seems to be withdrawn and isolating himself may need assistance. The peer counselor can approach the worker and see how he can help. That may require the counselor to refer the worker to the EAP program or more professional counseling, for example.

One additional benefit of peer counseling programs is the support they can provide to the families of First Responders with PTSD. Engaging in normal family activities is a big step in helping the worker recover. Peer counselors can stress this to family members and provide resources that may help them cope better.

Workers who elect to become peer counselors are often those who have been through traumatic events themselves and either have had the benefit of working with other peer counselors or see the benefit of doing so.

IMCS is a national network of Health Providers in Psychology that delivers cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for chronic pain, trauma and insomnia across the country for the workers’ compensation industry.