This article has been reviewed for accuracy by our peer review team which includes clinicians and medical professionals. Learn more about our peer review process.
Retirement can be a challenging transition for many people, especially for those who draw a great deal of purpose and identity from their work. First responders often fall into this category. Most of them choose careers as police officers, firefighters or EMS professionals, because they want to help people and serve their communities. Much of their identity derives from this strong sense of public service and the need to be readily available to those in crisis.
This issue of identity is one of a number of issues in retirement that uniquely affect first responders and can impact their mental and physical wellbeing. Just ask Dr. Sachi Ananda, Ph.D., LMHC, MCAP, who is the director of FHE Health’s specialized program for first responders, “Shatterproof FHE Health.” She says first responders often show up in mental health treatment after they retire because of various issues they may be experiencing related to the transition. In a recent interview, she laid out the various ways that retirement can introduce new mental health issues, have a mental health impact and in some cases reveal a need to seek professional treatment.
Begin your recovery today
Ready to start? More questions about treatment?
What Are Common Mental Health Issues that First Responders Face in Retirement?
Identity issues, as mentioned, can be common among retired first responders. That is because “they signed up for a career that’s more than a job—it’s a personal and professional identity of serving and protecting others—and when they retire, they are no longer officially a first responder,” Dr. Ananda said.
Related to this question of identity is the fact that “being a first responder comes with some status and privileges and is a position of authority and respect … and when they leave that field, they may not automatically get all of those benefits and that same recognition.” And “if they’re no longer in uniform, they don’t have those symbols of power and authority.”
In this sense, retirement can cause a first responder to question their sense of identity. They may feel like they have lost a key signifier of who they are, and the experience may adversely impact a first responder’s mental health.
Boredom can also be common and a potential trigger of mental health issues during retirement, according to Dr. Ananda. She noted that first responders typically “come from a highly structured environment, a lot of protocols, policies, and shift work and they’re following certain guidelines according to their field and a chain of command … when you leave that structured environment for no structure, it becomes difficult to know what to do with oneself.”
Isolation can be another feature of retirement. Here is how Dr. Ananda explained it:
“With first responders in general, there’s the feeling that people don’t understand them because they face a lot of crises. When they lose that connection with their peer group (other first responders), that adds to their isolation—so now they are left only with their families and friends, and that can make them feel more alienated and alone.”
Treatment can begin quickly and discretely, get started now
What Are Signs that It May Be Time to Seek Professional Help for Mental Health in Retirement?
Typically, if a first responder is suffering from a mental health condition, they will not be the first to recognize the signs that it may be time to seek professional help.
“Usually, peers or family members need to see it,” Dr. Ananda said. “Throughout their career, first responders have to look like they are in control, and they carry this mask into retirement. It takes someone else who knows them well enough to see they need help.”
Dr. Ananda said it may be time to seek treatment if you notice any of these signs:
- Excessive drinking
- Abusing substances, especially sleep medications
- Increased agitation and anger issues
More Questions about Treatment?
We offer 100% confidential and individualized treatment
How Can a First Responder Struggling with Mental Health in Retirement Seek Support?
If such signs are manifesting in life in retirement, one of the best ways to support mental health is to seek treatment.
“Get professional help from someone who preferably understands first responder issues,” Dr. Ananda said. “One of the common reasons why someone would go to treatment is because they’ve retired and basically are so hopeless that they don’t know what to do,” Dr. Ananda said. She added encouragingly that “once they come to treatment, they can actually see retirement as a new chapter in their life and that they are reaching new goals and can have hope for their new life.”
Family therapy can also be a helpful support, “because retirement is a change for everyone, not just the first responder.
In addition to these supports, Dr. Ananda recommended:
- Getting involved in “some sort of civic-minded volunteering with people with the same spirit of wanting to give back to others.”
- Creating or developing activities or hobbies of interest that provide a sense of purpose and meaning
Why Is the Transition to Retirement for First Responders Commonly Difficult?
For the first responder who may be struggling with retirement, it may help to know that the issues they are facing are relatively common. The transition to retirement is notorious for being hard, after all—on first responders especially.
What would Dr. Ananda say to help a first responder feel less alone in dealing with retirement-related mental health and other issues? “Let go of the guilt and shame, if you’re experiencing any mental health issues due to retirement.” Since first responders are so good at helping other people, she also gave the following guidance for self-care: “If you saw these symptoms in someone else, what would you tell them to do?”
Finally, she invoked a saying that she often uses. “Sometimes rescuers need rescuing, too,” she said.
If you or a first responder you care about is struggling with mental health in retirement, reach out for help anytime on our dedicated helpline: (833) 591-1578.