First Responders, Here are 6 Ways I Prevent Negative Work Mental Images from Coming Home


Dr. Rachelle Zemlok

Photo Courtesy Landon Jensen

First responders are assigned to extremely challenging positions that expose them to ongoing traumatic images (child pornography, child abuse, suicides, brutal accidents etc). I wish there was more information and support for first responders on how to take care of themselves mentally to manage such challenging experiences. I’m going to discuss how I built the best mental barrier I could in order to keep work’s traumatic images out of my home life.

My first job after getting licensed was conducting psychological assessments and treatment for youth that were incarcerated or on probation. I became a specialist in assessing youth that committed sexual abuse against children.

So few mental health professionals do that by choice, as you can imagine. What came along with that is ongoing daily exposure to detailed child sexual abuse. Police reports, victim’s statements, and diving into the deepest darkest pockets of a (usually) male teenager’s mind. I needed to know their exact thought process so I could then work to treat them and reduce their risk of ever doing that again.

I saw those mental images and information I consumed as mud on my shoes and I wanted to be very careful not to track it into my home. My home was my sanctuary where I shut off work and became that spouse I wanted to be, not the one holding onto the terrible things I heard that day.


  1. I did not bring ANY physical work home. I didn’t check my email at home and If I needed to complete something, I stayed late or came in early.
  2. I am an overachiever, however I was acutely aware as to how much of this work I was taking on and balanced it out with other tasks so it didn’t consume ALL of me.
  3. I became intentional about processing my day. I know as a mental health professional my brain needs to sift through and process information (whether that’s a reaction I had or a detail I was trying to make sense of). I also know it needs quiet uninterrupted space to do this effectively. If I left work and distracted myself the rest of the day (music in the car ride home, discussions with my husband at home, TV shows in the evening…) the first quiet uninterrupted time would be bedtime. Then my mind would try processing that information while I fell asleep and in my dreams. I had 40 minutes on my commute home and made that my space. I would drive home in silence and intentionally allow my mind to go over whatever it needed to, have reactions, think through things etc. I was kind of in a zone. After about 30 minutes or so I’d notice that I started having very neutral thoughts like “what’s that license plate mean?” “That’s an ugly car color.” etc. That was my que! I’m back.
  4. I’d intentionally switch from work mode to home mode. I’d do this for about 30 seconds right after I pulled into my driveway by reminding myself of a couple things I’m grateful for. Then I’d remind myself of what type of spouse I wanted to be (present, positive, grateful). Then I’d walk inside and start from there.
  5. I didn’t talk about any details at home, but I also didn’t hold on to them. My spouse and I had an understanding, when he asked about how my day was I would be commenting on it in general. Maybe about office personalities etc. I wouldn’t be discussing random cases in our home. If there was a time I wanted to talk in more detail about work. We were intentional about not doing it in our home (we’d go on a walk or meet up at coffee shop). I also utilized supervision and colleagues to do the same.
  6. I balanced my life with positives to overcompensate. I made sure to surround myself with only positive movies, TV shows, and did not watch the news. All out of self preservation. I was taking in intense amounts of the world’s negativity and didn’t have space for more of it. Home needed to be about what was GOOD in this world and going right so I could balance my view of our world.

This all sounds intense I know. I’ll be honest, no one really knew all this was going on and I really just did it naturally. This is me just reflecting on all the intentional ways I was taking care of my mental wellness based on my training as a psychologist. Even with all of that, there were times when it impacted me outside of work (an unwanted thought creeping in, exaggerated fears for my own nieces etc). I didn’t ignore them. I’d give them some thought and attention to figure out why I may have been holding onto that one or maybe discuss it with my husband or colleague briefly.

If I can leave you with one thought it’s THIS: Mentally intense jobs require you to take extreme measures in mental wellness. Don’t take your, or your spouse’s, mental wellness lightly. Our brains were not made to absorb unlimited amounts of traumatic images and stories. First responders need to do way more than the average person to balance that out.

Reach out! Talk to someone about how you can better put boundaries around the challenging aspects of your job if you find it bleeding into your personal life. If you’re a resident of California and looking for an individual or couples therapist you can reach out to me.

About Dr. Rachelle Zemlok

Dr. Rachelle Zemlok is a licensed clinical psychologist in California specializing in working with first responder families and supporting parents with children diagnosed with ADHD or pose behavioral challenges. Dr. Zemlok is also a Cordico Advisory Board member.  For more information on Dr. Zemlok or to connect with her please visit her website at