First responders find help by opening up about stress

BY David Cruz, Senior Correspondent |

They’re the ones who run to the scene of the emergency while everyone else is running away from it. We celebrate them as heroes, rarely thinking about the toll their constant exposure to trauma can have on them.

“People see first responders and their uniform as a suit of armor and that they’ll not be affected by anything, but under that uniform that person’s a human being, too,” said Dan Farnworth, a first responder in the UK.

Farnworth suffers from Post-traumatic stress disorder. He was at New Bridge Medical center is Paramus to participate in “Stigma Free, Bridging the Pond,” a program that hopes to expand the stigma-free program begun in Paramus over to England. Farnworth was present to listen and share techniques that not only help those directly affected by conditions like PTSD, but those close to them as well.

“I look at myself when I was diagnosed with PTSD,” he added. “But before I was diagnosed, I had to reach out for support and I confided in my friends. That simple method of talking to somebody gave me the strength to move forward and to seek the help and support. My biggest suggestion for anybody who’s out there and is struggling and wants help and support, talk to somebody.”

And that was the recurring theme among attendees, which included cops, firefighters and other first responders. Communication is key.

“People are afraid to ask for help because they’re afraid that it’ll follow them throughout their careers,” explained Mike Tarantino, the director of the Bergen County EMS Training Center. “They’re afraid to help, and what we’re trying to do is to break down the stigma that we want to help the people. We want them to know that we’re here to help them if they want the support.”

The daylong session included workshops on stress-reducing exercises and healthy coping mechanisms. Getting first responders in the same room with health professionals is critical to building the bonds necessary to make that open communication possible.

“They don’t recognize that they need their own umbrella to prevent them from developing symptoms that then can later erode their own functioning, either in their home life or their work life, and so they take pride in the strength that they have,” noted clinical psychologist Maria Masciandaro. “They’ve obviously come to these helping professions thinking that they have some kind of muscle that will allow them to soldier on, but we all have Achilles’ heel.”

Farnworth says today is just a first step, an opening of trans-Atlantic lines of communication. The goal is to keep heroes – wherever they are – on the job by providing them with the tools to recognize their own weaknesses so that they can keep doing what they do, for the benefit of the rest of us.