St. Luke’s Program Helps First Responders Deal with PTSD

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While first responders excel at preventing harm, rescuing people and giving medical treatment during traumatic incidents and accidents, these everyday heroes rarely seek help to combat the emotional toll their occupation can have on their own mental health.

St. Luke’s University Health Network (SLUHN) is addressing this issue by launching a program that provides support and therapy for first responders who suffer on-the-job post-traumatic stress disorder and other trauma-related side effects.

This one-of-a-kind service in the area offers symptom evaluation, communication and coping skills training, medication management and a variety of therapies, provided by psychiatrists and therapists both virtually and in-person.

A first responder may experience mounting symptoms of emotional burnout such as fatigue, depression, sleep problems, guilt, anger and more if they don’t have coping skills or receive some kind of mental health therapy, said James A. James, DO, Vice Chairman of Behavioral Health for SLUHN and founder of this new treatment resource and outreach program.

James James

James A. James, DO, is Vice Chairman of Behavioral Health for St. Luke’s University Health Network and the founder of the hospital’s new treatment resource and outreach program designed for first responders dealing with PTSD and other forms of stress. (Credit: St. Luke’s University Health Network)

“Recent research suggests that, in extreme cases, emergency medical services (EMS) workers and other first responders are at a higher risk for suicide compared to the general public,” he said. “Sometimes, a single incident, or repeated exposures to horrific situations, can erode a rescuer’s emotional resilience if not addressed.”

The St. Luke’s program was started after Dr. James learned from several first responders that few local resources exist to help them, and that first responders rarely access the resources that are available to them locally.

John Semonich, St. Luke’s EMS liaison, long-time paramedic and collaborator with Dr. James, said working long hours and multiple jobs, witnessing on-the-job trauma and violence and a “don’t-discuss-it” culture among first responders can create an unhealthy mix.

“It’s estimated that over 70 percent of first responders work two jobs and often overtime to make ends meet,” Semonich said. “Some people believe that reaching out for help can be seen as weak, and that calling out sick for a mental health day can add to the already severe staffing shortage EMS services face daily.”

“We often don’t take care of ourselves,” he added, which can lead to dangerous behaviors like overeating, sleep deprivation, and substance abuse and alcohol issues, which can cause relationship, physical and financial troubles.

For Semonich, exercising while listening to music and taking time off with his family have helped him find relief emotionally when job stress builds up. But he’s likely in the minority who have found healthy routines to stave off symptoms.

“First responders tend to be self-reliant and even self-sacrificing,” said Dr. James, “and they frequently put their own lives on the line to save other people from harm. This can be in the literal sense.”

He said it can take months or years of treatment to manage, reverse or resolve the issues, symptoms and side effects that come with this caring occupation, “but in the long run, it’s a start on a healthy road, which is better than letting the stress continue to snowball and possibly lead to traumatic consequences among this group of dedicated professionals.”

To make an appointment, call 484-526-2400.

Note: This local health news is brought to you in partnership with St. Luke’s University Health Network.

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