Survivor’s Guilt and Shame: Coping Tips for First Responders
First responders are subject to many traumatic events. Often their actions generate positive results: they help people in trouble, they save lives, or they ensure that dangerous suspects are placed under arrest. Yet sometimes the best intentions coupled with the best efforts cannot save lives. In such cases, first responders may suffer from survivor’s guilt, a feeling that may involve guilt over staying alive or for actions that failed to achieve a desired result. By learning to cope with survivor guilt and shame, first responders like police and firemen can overcome what the medical community refers to as a syndrome that can compromise their mental well-being and affect their job performance and other aspects of their lives.
Survivor’s Guilt and the Nature of the Job
First responders deal with matters of life and death frequently. While they may be trained to realize that their efforts won’t always save lives, they may be surprised by the feelings of guilt and shame that wash over them when they aren’t able to rescue a victim or protect a colleague out in the field. Identified by psychologists in the 1960s, survivor’s guilt is often associated with first responders, military service men and women, and people who live through life-threatening events or situations.
Many first responders who witness a death on the job may feel that they didn’t do enough to rescue or protect the deceased. Intense feelings of guilt and shame may well up and make it difficult for the sufferer to focus on other things and even to perform their job with a healthy frame of mind. Even when a sufferer understands that they did nothing wrong, they may feel irrationally guilty and responsible for the negative outcome of the event. In fact, experts suggest that it’s the feeling of responsibility that can pave the way for those feelings of guilt.
Coping with Survivor Guilt
Speaking with a therapist is a positive way to cope with survivor guilt. Talking about feelings with someone outside of the situation can help the sufferer gain new insights into their experience. A therapist can also encourage the sufferer to challenge their irrational thoughts by learning to accept that they are not responsible for the fate of those who perished. Often, therapists will counsel first responders suffering with survivor’s guilt to take action, to do something positive in the present to enhance their recovery process. Volunteering for a worthy cause, for instance, may help to heal the parts that feel most broken inside.
First responders who suffer from feelings of guilt or shame might also consider meeting with a support network or working on connections with others. Spending time with family or friends can help combat feelings of isolation and loneliness. Being alone with the mental burden isn’t a good idea in the early stages of recovery. Instead, try to meet with others and to take part in life as much as possible as a way of coping with feelings of guilt, shame, and loss. People who suffer from survivor syndrome can recover, but it takes time to cope and to work through the therapeutic process that can lead to an improved sense of mental well-being.