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.” 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 issues, have a mental health impact and in some cases reveal a need to seek professional treatment.
Common Issues in Retirement for First Responders
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 their 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.
The Mental Health Impact of an Identity Crisis/Boredom/Isolation
All of these issues can take a mental health toll in the form of “a lot of depression and feelings of disempowerment, lack of purpose and meaning in life,” Dr. Ananda said. “You’ll often see an increase in drinking and substance abuse … A person may have already had a mental health or substance abuse problem, but it just gets worse.”
Dr. Ananda gave the example of abusing alcohol after responding to crises (a relatively common coping behavior in first responders). In the absence of “healthier ways to socialize with peers or other people,” first responders might “continue this habit in retirement.” Boredom and heightened isolation from one’s peers may only feed this behavior even more.
How an Underlying Health Issue Can Worsen in Retirement
Sometimes a first responder may have an untreated mental or physical health condition that actually becomes worse when they retire. Dr. Ananda gave the example of a case of untreated PTSD, which occurs at much higher rates among first responders than in the general population. In retirement, there is no longer the job to “distract” a person or “motivate them to perform at a higher level.” In some cases, the situation can be so dire that “people can become suicidal.”
Suicidal depression, like other mental and physical conditions that can manifest in retirement, are often a consequence of chronic, job-related stress. Over time, the release of stress in the body can give rise to these illnesses and may be why first responders are known to have shorter life spans, according to Dr. Ananda. She noted that rates of divorce are also higher among first responders, presumably because of their higher stress levels.
Signs That It May Be Time to Seek Professional Help
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
Suggested Supports for Mental Health in Retirement
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
Understanding That the Transition to Retirement Is 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.