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Updated on November 13, 2023
First responder peer support is crucial. While it can be rewarding, being a first responder is also one of the hardest, loneliest, and most stressful jobs around. What many people don’t know is that substance abuse and suicide occur at dramatically higher rates within first responder professions—and, because they are used to helping rather than being helped, first responders may be slow to seek treatment and feel out of place in a general rehab program. With a support network of their own peers, on the other hand, many first responders do well in treatment and are able to make a solid recovery.
What explains this dynamic? Why is peer support so critical for first responders in rehab? Peer recovery specialist Bev Perez answers these and other questions with a rare blend of no-nonsense professionalism and disarming vulnerability. The retired police officer leads peer support groups in FHE Health’s treatment program for first responders (“Shatterproof FHE Health”).
When we connected for a recent interview, Perez had just finished one of her groups where she addresses “coping skills, mental fitness, and suicide awareness and prevention.” We began the conversation by talking about her role as a peer support specialist….
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What’s the Role of a First Responder Peer Support Specialist in Rehab?
Perez described her role as one of connecting and building relationships with other first responders about “things we’ve seen on the job.”
“I also try to be the ‘welcome wagon’ when they first get here,” she added. Then she went on to explain just why that welcome is so important:
“When you arrive, you’re strip-searched, and your cellphones are taken away. As first responders, you’re used to doing this, so to now have it done to you is a very vulnerable place. My job is to welcome them and make them feel comfortable. I let them know that this process will be uncomfortable and that we understand it is uncomfortable. This validates them … If they’re new, I’ll come and shake their hand and let them know I’m there to support them and am a peer as someone in the profession. I try to assure them that we are here.”
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What Is Rehab Like in an Environment That Supports First Responder Peer Treatment?
“Welcoming” is how Perez described rehab in an environment that provides first responder peer support. “You no longer feel alone … as a burden … or convinced ‘this is only happening to me.’ You have a peer who can talk to you, validate your emotions, and give you the facts: that now you have a PTSD-and-addicted brain.”
The main therapeutic difference that first responder peer support makes is “a sense of community.” Here is how Perez described it:
“We don’t want to feel alone. The way you bond is to vulnerably talk about that shameful, hurtful thing that you’ve been carrying, and now you’re vulnerably sharing it with a group of peers who can support you because they understand and have been in the same place.”
This sense of connection and community, according to the research, can improve recovery outcomes.
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What Are Benefits of First Responder Peer Support in Inpatient and Outpatient Treatment?
In one sense, the benefits of first responder peer support are the same for inpatient and outpatient treatment—namely, “being able to relate to someone as a peer” while developing “coping skills.”
Perez, who facilitates a group composed of female alumni from Shatterproof FHE Health, said the issues that you’re processing can be different in outpatient: “You may be getting hit with life, divorce, termination—and that’s a different level of support; it’s no longer in a controlled environment.”
What Are Words of Wisdom for a First Responder on the Fence About Seeking Treatment?
At this question, Perez paused. Meaningfully. It seemed she was searching for words that could impart not just wisdom but hope, healing, and the promise of a new start.
“I’d say ‘do it,’” she said, before going on to acknowledge the stigma that can be attached to even the word “rehab.” Instead, she suggested another way to think about treatment: “Really this is a reset button to get back to being the best version of yourself.”
If you’re not sure about pressing that reset button? Do some exploring and researching of a specialized program like Shatterproof FHE Health. See what first responder peer support is really like.
“My biggest advice would be, at the very least, reach out to somebody here and have a conversation,” Perez said. “Ask some questions; get some clarity; do some research. Maybe ask someone who has already gone through the program.”
And, as parting advice, try to get in touch with what you want and feel:
“You have to want the help. It’s a personal journey. There’s no way I can convince you to come [to rehab]. You have to want it. The words of wisdom at the end of the day: How exhausted are you? If you want to create the best version of yourself, then this is the reset button. If you have the chance, take it.”