Shatterproof at FHE Health is a specialized addiction and mental health treatment program for first responders. What sets it apart has a lot to do with the unique work-related stressors and traumas that these men and women face—as well as the treatments and supports that can best address their particular needs.
In her role as the program director of Shatterproof at FHE Health, Dr. Sachi Ananda, Ph.D., LMHC, MCAP, is intimately familiar with these issues. She also speaks with expertise about what sets Shatterproof at FHE Health apart, from aspects of the program like peer support groups to the structure of a typical day. In a recent interview, we invited Dr. Ananda to share more about these and other components of the program and how they address the unique mental health needs of first responders—but first, what are the unique mental health needs of first responders?
First Responder Mental Health and Addiction Treatment Needs
Unlike most people who may be able to recall one or two traumatic experiences in a lifetime, firefighters, law enforcement officers, and other emergency personnel are routinely exposed to trauma as part of their job. That inevitably takes a toll. Consider these findings and statistics regarding first responder mental health and addiction treatment needs:
- “18-24 percent of dispatchers and 35 percent of police officers suffer from PTSD,” the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has said.
- According to NAMI, “many first responders self-medicate with alcohol or other self-destructive and abusive behaviors to cope with the stress and trauma they deal with daily.”
- Alcohol abuse affects as many as 29 percent of firefighters, and prescription drug abuse may affect 10 percent of firefighters, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health revealed. Rates of substance abuse are elevated among other first responders, too. For instance, one in four police officers has a drug or alcohol problem.
- Around 30 percent of first responders will develop a mental health condition like PTSD or depression, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has reported.
- More first responders die from suicide than in the line of duty, a 2021 Centers for Disease Control report The same CDC report “Suicides Among First Responders: A Call to Action” attributed the higher risk of suicide among first responders to “the environments in which they work, their culture, and stress, both occupational and personal.”
Why Is Peer Support Important in First Responder Treatment?
“Peer support” groups with other first responders who share the same culture is therefore a core feature of Shatterproof at FHE that also sets it apart. We asked Dr. Ananda why this element of the program is important in first responder treatment. Here is what she said:
While working on the job, first responders often have to work together within their departments, teams, and units. Their lives may depend on how well they work with each other. The deep level of trust that’s required on the job spills over to their personal lives, where they tend to only trust those who have the lived experience of being a first responder. That’s why peer support is so important—because when first responders are struggling, they are more likely to open up to their peers rather than professionals or outsiders.
Dr. Ananda isn’t just speaking from her own experience as a trauma therapist who works closely with first responders. Research confirms that social support from other first responders fulfills a key therapeutic function and can serve as a protective buffer from the mental health effects of occupational stress and trauma.
Common Feedback from First Responders in Shatterproof at FHE
Feedback from patients about their experience in Shatterproof at FHE is another way to explore the unique dimensions of this program. One comment that Dr. Ananda hears the most: “This program saved my life.”
Hearing that “keeps fueling the fire for me to continue as program director,” Dr. Ananda said. She went on to explain why this remark is especially eye-opening and carries more weight coming from a first responder:
First responders are trained to be on alert for people and places that are potentially dangerous or life threatening. They take this trained eye to treatment programs and so as clients going into programs, they are known to be much more distrustful, cautious, and skeptical. If they say they love the program and that it has helped saved first responders lives, they mean it.
Dr. Ananda added that patients “often say it’s not like any other first responder program or general population program in the country.”
What Is a Typical Day Like in Shatterproof at FHE?
Many patients begin their day with exercise or a walk around the campus with others in the program, Dr. Ananda said. Breakfast, a “a community meal” like lunch and dinner, follows.
After that, patients participate in “trauma-focused therapeutic groups in the mornings and afternoons.” These groups “range from first responder-specific psychoeducation to group processing and expressive healing therapies.”
Meanwhile, throughout the day, patients are also:
- meeting with therapists, medical/psychiatric teams, care coordinators, and other staff to assist with various issues
- receiving cutting-edge neuro rehab services to help heal the brain faster from damage caused by chronic exposure to trauma
- receiving other therapeutic services like biofeedback bed, massage, and acupuncture
There is also an exclusive time reserved for first responders only to use the FHE Health gym, Dr. Ananda said. She explained that the evenings are typically when peer recovery support groups meet.
“The day ends with more community bonding and peer support in the form of community barbecues and dinners,” Dr. Ananda said.
What to Know if You’re on the Fence About Treatment
It’s not uncommon for first responders who are struggling with a mental health issue or substance abuse problem to feel hesitant about reaching out for help. Whether because of fears about job security, worries about stigma and appearing “weak,” or other anxieties, many first responders do not reach out for help and suffer needlessly in silence.
For these first responders, what message would Dr. Ananda most want to convey?
“First responders dedicate their lives to helping others, so it’s a foreign concept for them to put themselves before others,” she said. “There is no shame in asking for help, because sometimes rescuers need to be rescued, too.”