Quieting the inner voice of trauma for first responders

Mental Health

By Iris Perlstein

First responders are often witness to heartbreak and gut-wrenching situations that infiltrate all of their senses.

Unfortunately, because many tend to internalize and carry this trauma on a cellular level, it is difficult for first responders to retell and process horrific work experiences. But when this internalized trauma is not dealt with, it can lead to anger, anxiety, depression, addiction, a disconnect from relationships, a loss of self-worth and other adverse effects.

Trauma treatment is not about relaying stories about the past. Trauma treatment is about helping first responders to be here and now, to bear what they feel at this time in the present. Traumatic aftereffects can fester from the inside out, making the individual more vulnerable in every aspect of their life. Healing requires that you no longer allow the trauma memories to control your life.

In the novel “Beloved,”, author Toni Morrison uses the term “rememory” to describe a memory that refuses to disappear.

For first responders, the trauma memories often will not leave. The memories are so all-encompassing because the memory may integrate all of their senses. They see, hear and even smell trauma on an ongoing basis, and it may stay with them longer on a deeper, more

cellular and muscular level.

Moreover, compounding the issue is the inner voice of those who serve and protect society that may be whispering, “Talking about it is wrong and weak.”

When we help first responders acknowledge trauma and understand it, we can facilitate positive change. In turn, healing can replace hopelessness.

While physical wounds can heal over time, the invisible wounds can exist unresolved and hidden for years.

Some first responders experiencing the effects of trauma will benefit from traditional outpatient therapy — an hour a week, more or less, with a licensed therapist. Some may be in crisis and need to call a hotline such as RISE NJ First Responders COVID Hope and Healing Helpline (833-237-4325). Others may be in such acute need that they should contact the First Responder Treatment Service at Princeton House Behavioral Health. Dr. Michael Bizzarro (732-771-7165) and peer support specialist Ken Burkert (908-346-1691) are available at any time if a first responder or family member needs hospitalization or help sorting out next steps for treatment.

First Responder Treatment Services at Princeton House Behavioral Health offers inpatient care for law enforcement officers, firefighters, military personnel, nurses, EMTs and other first responders who are struggling with behavioral health and substance use disorders. The program is staffed with former first responders and veterans who are also licensed clinicians with expertise in trauma treatment. For additional information, www.princetonhouse.org/firstresponders.


Iris Perlstein is the clinical coordinator for the Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health First Responder Treatment Service.