It’s time to change the conversation from post-traumatic stress to post-traumatic growth

by Josh Goldberg - Executive Director, Boulder Crest Institute


Our nation’s first responders are struggling mightily. This was true before COVID-19. But in the aftermath of non-stop service, illness and hardship, these incredible people are battling a range of mental health issues.

For far too many, the impact of service to their communities has become a burden.  Retention and a growing apathy for service have become a problem. And leadership is worried about the future.

This is why FirstNet®, Built with AT&T partnered with Boulder Crest Foundation in 2021. Boulder Crest is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring first responders, combat veterans and their families can live great lives in the midst of hardship, stress, and struggle. Boulder Crest is the global leader in the development, delivery, study and scale of post-traumatic growth-based programs.

If you just did a double take when reading that final sentence, you are not alone. Knowledge of post-traumatic growth (PTG) is in the low single-digits. Few first responders can envision anything positive following the word post-traumatic. But Boulder Crest and FirstNet® aren’t just imagining that possibility. They are bringing it to life for first responders across the country.

The PTG framework 

Post-traumatic growth is a proven framework. It details how struggle and trauma can be catalysts for growth and transformation in our lives. Dr. Richard Tedeschi and Dr. Lawrence Calhoun, psychologists and researchers at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, first coined the term in 1995.

PTG provides a path for transforming struggle into strength and lifelong growth. In 2014, Boulder Crest’s founder, Ken Falke, a retired Navy bomb disposal technician and the son of a Washington, D.C., police officer, and I met with Dr. Tedeschi.

The three of us discussed creating training programs that would help first responders, combat veterans and family members experience post-traumatic growth. And we began to develop the first-ever PTG-based program called Warrior PATHH, in 2014.

Warrior PATHH is a 90-day program that begins with a 7-day intensive initiation. It’s now delivered by 9 teams in 8 states. And it’s free to the first responder and combat veteran community.

Transforming struggle

In 2020, Boulder Crest began exploring ways to turn the COVID-19 pandemic into something positive and transform struggle into growth. We launched the First Responder Initiative. And we focused on changing the culture of first responders, in line with a quote from Tucson Police Chief Chad Kasmar:

“The reality is, these are human beings who have sick children, who have aging parents, who have just suffered a loss, who are still trying to process a child dying in their arms the shift before.”

“These are all things that if we don't create an environment where we can talk about it – where we can off-load those feelings and support each other – we're going to have outcomes in the field we don't want. And officers leaving the profession much sooner than they should.”

Just 18 months later – and thanks to the vision of FirstNet – Boulder Crest has trained more than 1,600 first responders in the principles and practice of post-traumatic growth. Boulder Crest has hosted monthly, 5-day trainings for law enforcement in Dade County, FL, and with the Tucson Police Department in Arizona.

In 2022-2023, Boulder Crest and FirstNet® are expanding efforts to North Carolina, South Carolina, Oregon, Massachusetts, Montana, and Virginia. 

Training results 

First responders have called the Struggle Well training:

  • “The best training I’ve ever received in my career.”
  • “Something every member of the profession should experience.”
  • “Life changing.”

Training satisfaction surveys indicate an approval rating of more than 99 percent. And after the training, participants show statistically significant improvement (45%) in their post-traumatic growth scores.

Students continue to get support and access to a private social network and learning community through the Struggle Well App, refresher trainings and family trainings.

Four key principles 

At the core of these trainings are four key principles:

  • Balancing the narrative: We must move beyond our focus on disorder, diagnosis, dysfunction and diminishment to a conversation about growing through struggle (post-traumatic growth).
  • Normalizing struggle: The professional and personal stressors that come with being an emergency responder are immense. So, the question is not whether a responder will struggle, but how they will struggle. Training that normalizes the impact of the lifestyle is a critical part of lifting the stigma that comes with the struggle and seeking help.
  • Integrating wellness and PTG into training: It is critical that we integrate training focused on officers’ well-being. And we need to do this with the same regularity as any other critical skill set. We shouldn’t view it as an ancillary topic. When we integrate wellness into the fabric of the organization, we have a positive impact in the culture of public safety.
  • Institutionalizing wellness and PTG training: We have to weave this into the lifecycle of a responders’ career. And we must start from the beginning of their training and continue through their transition out of the workforce.

Less PTSD and more PTG 

This PTSD Awareness Month, let’s consider talking less about PTSD and more about PTG. Let’s talk about the possibilities to transform pain into purpose, loss into gain, and struggle into strength.

Let’s talk about the fact that we have to do better. The cost of service to our communities shouldn’t be the quality of someone’s life and the lives of those they love.

Let’s talk less about diminishment, dysfunction, disconnection, and diagnosis and more about hope, connection, strength, gratitude and meaning. Let’s make sure our nation’s first responders can struggle well. They deserve it. 

Josh Goldberg has served as the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Boulder Crest Institute for Post-traumatic Growth since January 2018. In this role, He’s responsible for leading the development, delivery, study and scaling of Post-traumatic Growth-based programs for time of struggle. This includes developing and scaling Boulder Crest's transformative Warrior PATHH program (for combat veterans and first responders) to nine teams in eight states, and the creation of the First Responder Initiative, helping first responders in seven states and across the federal government. Over the past three years, Josh has taught more than 30,000 people how to Struggle Well.