How Do I Get Help for My First Responder Family?


Dr. Rachelle Zemlok

Photo Courtesy Landon Jensen

As a police wife or fire wife, odds are there might be some challenging times that are difficult to navigate at some point in the career. What are your options? Knowing what your options are can be an important place to start.

On The Job: Many fire departments and police departments make attempts at offering debriefing services for the first responders after critical events because we know these services can be very helpful for first responders specifically. The nice part is that the first responder doesn’t need to seek these services out, but they may be asked to participate in them based on what they just went through. They may be called CISD (Critical Incident Stress Debriefing), CISM (Critical Incident Stress Management), or Peer Support. Your spouse has likely heard of these services or been a part of them. The academy often provides first responders with this information. If they are unaware of any, they can ask a more senior police officer or firefighter, a union representative, or human resources personnel. If at some point your spouse is involved in a critical incident and invited to participate in these services, or talked to by a trained peer-support personnel, trust me on the fact that it can be beneficial for them and gently encourage participation.

Spouse and Family Specific Services: As a fire wife or police wife your world can also be turned upside down following your spouse going through a critical incident. Though less common, some departments may offer support services specifically to the first responder family members following critical incidents. Again, you can ask a union representative or HR what is offered to family members. If they do not have anything formally set up in the department please consider some of the options listed below to support yourself.

E.A.P.: An Employee Assistance Program is often times available to firefighters or police officers and their beneficiaries. In fact, many employees have this service available to them and aren’t even aware of it. An EAP is a network available to employees to use as a way to assist them with any issues that may have an impact on their well-being. “Issues” do not have to be work related. Often times there are a number of free confidential sessions available to employees and their beneficiaries. These can be used for assessments and short-term counseling often provided by licensed clinicians in private practice. After the free sessions are used, you and the therapist can decide if continuing services is right for you. This process begins by the employer providing you the number or the website of the EAP network. You do not have to tell them why you want it, just that you would like the information. Sometimes this information can be available online or through an employee website. You will be able to search the therapists or counselors the network covers and see where they are located and what their credentials are. You will then be able to contact the mental health clinician directly and set up an appointment. The therapist will bill the insurance directly. You usually will not have to report back to the employer. As I mentioned, sessions are confidential, but if you are curious about what information has to be provided to the insurance agency regarding billing, do not hesitate to ask the clinician directly.

Counseling Through Church: If you and your family are religious, reaching out to your religious community can be extremely supportive in times of need. Congregations often have specific employees certified, licensed, or experienced in counseling individuals on many topics. If this is the case, they likely can identify when they can help and when they may need to make an additional referral to a more specialized professional. Many departments have Chaplains to meet the needs of firefighters and police officers in the department and may additionally be available for family members. Due to their role in responding to critical incidents, Chaplains can have a very good understanding of specific challenges first responders and their families face. Some Chaplains may even have first hand experience being a first responder themselves.

Groups: Also available to you are groups targeted at very specific struggles such as Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) groups. There are also forms of these groups that support family members of the individual struggling with these specific issues such as Al-Anon Family Groups or Ala-Teen. First Responders have higher rates of PTSD than the general population based on the exposure at their jobs. This can often times lead to ways of coping that aren’t always helpful. Alcohol can be easily overused in the population as a result. Getting help in a group format can be extremely helpful, yet also extremely intimidating at the same time. This is why there are first responder only groups so that they are amongst other people that get it. If you live in California and you think your first responder spouse could benefit, check this out for information on a first responder group near you.

Private Pay: Another option to consider is a licensed clinician in private practice with specific experience with emergency responders. As you now know, the culture has very specific challenges that outsiders may have a hard time relating to. Unfortunately, Employee Assistance Programs do not always include mental health professionals with specific training or experience related to the population they are serving. Though general therapists are likely to be able to meet the needs of certain struggles, through couples therapy, stress management, PTSD, depression etc. Never assume that they were trained in or know anything specific about the challenges of first responders and their family members. The risk here is that many people may think they know what first responders actually do on a day-to-day basis, because their jobs are highly publicized in the media and commonly talked about. However, this can lead to assumptions about the culture, and an unskilled clinician can jump to a conclusion that may demonstrate a serious lack of understanding and even be offensive to the first responder or their family.

This can be detrimental to someone unsure about seeking mental health support in the first place. He or she may never return to see that therapist, or any other therapist, assuming “no one will get it.” There are licensed therapists out there with training and experience treating first responders and military families. Some licensed clinicians are not only experienced in it, but have personal experience being an emergency responder, in the military, or the family member of such. Such as myself! The point is, if you are looking for some additional support, but have had a poor experience, keep looking! If you thought you were physically sick and went to a medical doctor and had a poor experience, would you stop going to all doctors forever, assuming they are all the same and will never be able to help you!? No, you’d likely attribute it to the doctor’s style and keep looking until you found someone who was helpful and fit what you were looking for. Approach mental health the same way. Believe me, it’s worth it! Proactively addressing mental health symptoms throughout a career can reduce later dysfunction that can have the potential to ruin a career, reputation, or relationships.

The following are national resources created specifically for first responders and their family members to assist them in crisis and help connect individuals to other resources if necessary. They are completely confidential and specific to your families individual needs.

844-525-FIRE (3473): 24/7 Fire Fighter & Family Support Line phone line is answered by trained professionals

1-800- COP-LINE (267-5463): 24/7 Support line for law enforcement and families. Phone line in answered by retired law enforcement that gets it.

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. For more information on Dr. Zemlok or to connect with her please visit her website at