PTSD Treatment for First Responders

Medically reviewed by Dr. Mark Hrymoc, M.D.

PTSD treatment for first responders offers support for those on the front lines. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) treatment for first responders often includes trauma-focused psychotherapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Prolonged Exposure (PE) therapy, and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). These treatments aim to help individuals process and manage their trauma-related thoughts and feelings, providing them with coping strategies to deal with triggers and reduce PTSD symptoms effectively.

First responders are exposed to dangerous and traumatic emergencies that can, over time, impact their mental health. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms can make it difficult for first responders to do their jobs, strain personal relationships, and lead to other mental health symptoms.

PTSD treatment is available and involves multiple evidence-based trauma-focused therapies to help first responders understand and cope with their symptoms.

This article explores PTSD treatment for first responders.

The Prevalence of PTSD Among First Responders

The prevalence of PTSD among first responders is notably higher compared to the general population. This elevated rate is attributed to their repeated exposure to traumatic events, such as life-threatening situations, violence, and disasters.

It is estimated that 30 percent of first responders develop behavioral health conditions including, but not limited to, depression and PTSD (SAMHSA). The impact of such exposure underscores the critical need for targeted mental health support and interventions specifically designed for this group, aiming to address and mitigate the effects of their demanding and often traumatic work environments.

Ensuring access to effective PTSD treatments and preventive strategies is paramount in supporting the psychological well-being of first responders, who play an essential role in emergencies and crises.

Symptoms and Diagnosis in First Responders

Symptoms of PTSD among first responders vary for each person. However, many report the following:

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Hypervigilance
  • Substance misuse
  • Flashbacks or nightmares
  • Irritability
  • Concentration problems
  • Emotional dysregulation
  • Depression
  • Exhaustion
  • Isolation

The diagnostic criterion for PTSD consists of factors regarding the following:

  • Exposure to the trauma
  • Intrusion symptoms
  • Avoidance behaviors
  • Negative cognitive and mood alterations
  • Changes in arousal and reactivity
  • Duration of symptoms
  • Distress and impairment in functioning
  • PTSD is not due to medications or other illnesses

PTSD Treatment for First Responders

The American Psychological Association recommends behavioral therapies, medications, peer support groups, and family counseling as part of a multi-layered approach to treating anyone with PTSD.

Here’s what you need to know about PTSD treatments for first responders.

Evidence-Based Treatments for PTSD

Evidence-based treatments have been studied and proven to work. A licensed professional must provide treatment, which typically includes trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF CBT), prolonged exposure therapy (PET), cognitive processing (CP), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), medications, and some alternative and holistic therapies.

These therapies help individuals confront and reprocess traumatic memories, aiming to reduce PTSD symptoms. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is another EBT that uses guided eye movements to help patients process trauma. These treatments have been validated through rigorous research, offering first responders a foundation for recovery. Adaptations of these therapies may include group sessions or peer support, recognizing the unique experiences and solidarity among first responders.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT focuses on improving thought patterns and associations. Someone with PTSD may get into a pattern of assuming the worst, expecting adverse outcomes, and having few positive thoughts. Therapists can help someone with PTSD recognize their thought patterns and reverse them.

CBT is also a great way to learn stress management, planning for stressful events, and emotional regulation. Combine CBT with other PTSD treatments for better results, such as cognitive restructuring, trauma exposure, and rewriting the trauma narrative. One study found that up to 82% of participants no longer met diagnostic criteria for PTSD after undergoing CBT treatment (NIH).

Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PET): How it Helps

Research shows that 53% of trauma survivors who initiate PET and 68% of those who complete PET no longer meet diagnostic criteria for PTSD after undergoing CBT treatment (NCPTSD). PET refers to associating emotional and physiological responses to particular stimuli. Those with PTSD may have an association that causes them distress, but with PET, they can overcome it.

PET teaches you to reduce irrational emotional responses, cope with body changes that may trigger fear, appropriately handle negative thoughts and emotions, and experience unexpected memories or reminders without significant distress. Over time and through exposure, the original stimuli do not produce a negative effect.

Medication Options

A psychiatrist will prescribe medications for PTSD based on your personal needs. The different options include Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), such as sertraline and paroxetine, approved by the FDA for PTSD. They modulate the levels of Serotonin in the brain and work well for mood and anxiety disorders.

Your doctor may choose off-label medicines if they are a better fit. For someone who does not respond to antidepressants, they may recommend ketamine-infusion therapy. Ketamine is administered at the lowest dose, working on the glutamate neurotransmitter in the brain and allowing your mind to open to positive changes.

Support Systems and Peer Networks

Making connections with other trauma survivors is a crucial part of recovery. Support systems and peer networks offer benefits like the following:

  • Knowing you are not alone and others understand what you are going through
  • Building trust with people a lot like you
  • Getting and giving feedback and advice on dealing with PTSD
  • Meeting people who will be there for you if you are having a hard time
  • Helping others by sharing your story
  • Importance of Early Intervention

Post-traumatic stress has painful symptoms, and when left untreated, they become chronic. Working as a first responder, you will likely experience a traumatizing situation at some point in your career. Therefore, taking advantage of early intervention strategies in the days and weeks following a trauma may help minimize symptoms.

Early interventions may include psychoeducation, exposure-based therapy, psychological debriefing, psychological first aid, and critical incident stress management.

PTSD Treatment in Los Angeles

Are you interested in exploring PTSD treatment for first responders in Los Angeles? The Mental Health Center at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Towers can help connect you with psychiatrists in Los Angeles who can provide individualized PTSD treatment.

By offering access to individualized treatment plans, including evidence-based therapies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), the center aims to address and alleviate the specific challenges faced by first responders

Contact us today to learn how we can help today.


If you have experienced a trauma, help is available. You don’t have to overcome painful symptoms alone. You can get treatment to help you cope and continue serving Los Angeles residents.

Contact us today to determine which PTSD treatment for first responders may be best for you.