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 support from 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”).
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….
What’s the Role of a 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.
The First Responder Mindset and Its Link to Mental Health
We asked Perez what about the first responder mindset needs to be accounted for when addressing mental health.
“When you go into this profession, you are trained in such a way to be a hard shell,” she said. “You have to be strong, tough, and the ‘go-to person.’ It’s this perspective that you’re a superhuman.”
These unrealistic expectations (about what it means to be a first responder) are heavy and far-reaching: “We carry that weight and that mindset not only through our profession but our personal lives.”
Perez added that many first responders deal with imposter’s syndrome. Internally, they often don’t feel confident or view themselves as leaders, even if externally they project a sense of authority and know-how.
In rehab, though, first responders learn “to identify the myths” associated with this way of relating to oneself and one’s world. Through peer support, they learn how to have the uncomfortable conversations.
Perez is courageously open about her story. (Her boyfriend, also a police officer, died in her arms after being shot in the line of duty, and she has had her own mental health struggles.) She has found that after she shares her experiences, others in the group are “more inclined to share”:
The biggest issue is that we don’t normalize these conversations. Breaking the stigma and ending the suicide epidemic among first responders is my passion, so I do talk about it very vulnerably. The most important thing about group therapy is being vulnerable; and being vulnerable is contagious.
What Rehab Is Like in an Environment That Supports Peer Treatment
“Welcoming” is how Perez described rehab in a peer support environment. “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 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.
The Benefits of Peer Support in Inpatient and Outpatient Treatment
In one sense, the benefits of 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, 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.”
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 at FHE.
“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.
If anxiety, insomnia, or other issues are making life unmanageable—for you or a first responder you love—reach out to us anytime, day or night, on our dedicated helpline: 1 (855) 633-4568.