Answering the Call: Understanding PTSD in First Responders

Uncovering the prevalence of PTSD among first responders, the challenges and barriers our emergency service workers face in seeking help.

When people picture someone suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), they often think of veterans and military personnel, but an overwhelming number of those suffering from trauma are in fact first responders. Police, fire, ambulance and other emergency service employees act as society’s front line, stepping into chaos to restore order, saving lives and shielding the community from harm. While their courage is remarkable, it often comes at a personal cost. 

First responders operate in high-stakes environments where every decision can mean the difference between life and death. Paramedics routinely face life-threatening incidents under immense time constraints. Firefighters charge into infernos and other dangerous environments to rescue people. Meanwhile, police officers face a range of high-stress situations, from domestic disputes to violent crimes, where danger is always part of the job.

The demanding and unpredictable nature of first responder work, combined with the build up of stress over time, takes a huge toll on their mental well being, making them highly susceptible to developing PTSD, which in turn leads to:

  • Chronic Stress and Emotional Exhaustion: The constant demands of their duties can lead to chronic stress, emotional exhaustion and a reduced capacity to manage their own mental health.
  • Hypervigilance: The need to stay constantly alert can lead to a state of hypervigilance. This state of heightened awareness is both mentally and physically draining, making it difficult to relax even when off duty.
  • Disconnection from Others: Regular exposure to traumatic events can make it difficult for first responders to connect with others. They might feel isolated or misunderstood by friends and family, adding to their emotional burden.
When Helping Hurts: The Prevalence of PTSD in First Responders

Studies have shown that the mental health risks for those in the emergency services are a lot higher compared to the general population. In 2018, Beyondblue conducted a national survey titled ‘Answering the Call’, which compared the experiences of over 21,000 personnel from police, fire, ambulance and SES employees, including those retired or no longer in the field.

The survey found that one in three first responders suffer from high or very high psychological distress, compared to one in five in the general Australian population. One in three volunteers reported they had been diagnosed with a mental health condition, with one in four ex-first responders reporting experiences of trauma. More worryingly, the data revealed that emergency service workers are more than twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts and three times more likely to have formulated a suicide plan. 

If we are to improve these statistics, we need to address the prevalence of PTSD among first responders and take proactive steps to protect their mental health and to support them in trauma recovery.  

Recognising the Symptoms of PTSD

Trauma can deeply affect first responders, showing up in ways that harm their emotional, psychological and physical health, making it tough for them to function both at work and at home. Catching these symptoms early can lead to more effective support and treatment. Here are some signs to look out for:

  • Profound Anxiety or Sadness: Intense, often overwhelming emotions of fear, sadness, or anxiety that don’t go away.
  • Emotional Detachment: A general sense of numbness or emotional detachment from people and the world around you.
  • Heightened Irritability: Feeling irritable or angry more often than usual or having emotional outbursts over small things that normally wouldn’t bother you.
  • Persistent Exhaustion: Feeling tired all the time, struggling with sleep issues like insomnia or not feeling refreshed even after a good night’s sleep.
  • Physical Symptoms: Experiencing frequent headaches, stomach pains or other pain without a clear medical cause.
  • Intrusive Thoughts: Persistent, unwanted thoughts of traumatic events, nightmares, or vivid flashbacks that interrupt your daily life.
  • Substance Dependence: Increasing reliance on alcohol or drugs as a way to cope with the above issues. 

most people don’t always recognise these signs of depression, anxiety or trauma in themselves. This means it’s crucial for everyone involved, including colleagues, family, healthcare providers, and support services, to watch for these symptoms and encourage first responders to seek the support they need. 


Despite the high prevalence of PTSD among first responders, several barriers often stand in the way of getting the mental health care they need. The ‘Answering the Call’ survey highlighted some of these challenges, stressing the urgent need for enhanced support and education tailored to emergency service personnel. 

Key barriers include:

  • Stigma Associated with Seeking Help: There’s still a lot of cultural and professional stigma about mental health, which can make first responders hesitant to admit they’re struggling and need help.
  • Fear of Job Repercussions: Many people worry that their mental health issues might negatively affect their career, which can discourage them from accessing necessary support.
  • Difficulty Getting Time Off Work: The non-stop nature of emergency services jobs makes it tough for them to find time for mental health appointments.
  • Cost of Treatment: Financial barriers can also prevent first responders from getting timely and effective therapy or counselling.
  • Limited Availability of Effective PTSD Treatments: Often, there aren’t enough PTSD treatment options specifically designed for the unique challenges and triggers faced by first responders.

A significant shortcoming in how Australia handles trauma among first responders is the absence of a coordinated, evidence-based approach. To better manage trauma-related stress, Australia needs to focus on creating safer work environments, investing more in training for resilience and prevention and enhancing the availability of counselling, medical care and effective rehabilitation pathways.

Hope in Health: A Path Forward for First Responders

At Hope in Health, we understand the unique pressures faced by our emergency service workers. That’s why we offer personalised treatments that go beyond addressing the symptoms of trauma, to effectively support first responders in moving forward.

Offering coordinated mental health, physical rehabilitation and wellness education services, we empower first responders to manage stress and enhance their resilience, so they can continue their crucial work in our communities or turn to new endeavours. Whether you are experiencing trauma, or know someone that is, reach out to Hope in Health today. 

Hope in Health

Phone: 1300 445 671




Warriors Advocacy

Phone: (02) 8317 5444




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