We must embrace struggle in order to grow

May 11, 2023

by Dr. Anna Fitch Courie - Director, Responder Wellness, FirstNet Program at AT&T and Josh Goldberg - CEO Boulder Crest Foundation for Post-traumatic Growth

Our language is painted with words that diminish, depress and stress us as humans – suicide, PTSD, depression, anxiety and many more. In efforts to raise awareness that mental health struggles are normal and common among emergency responders, veterans and service members, we’ve buried language that emphasizes how essential these professions are to the healthy infrastructure of our communities and nation.

It’s true that rates of PTSD, depression and anxiety in public safety personnel and the military far exceed that of the general population. But it’s also true that these “sheep dog” professions – those that run towards disaster instead of away from it – are tough, honorable, and essential professions that make our world a better place.

People who rush toward danger have unique characteristics. They bravely step into someone’s worst day, providing caring, compassion, technical skills and strength to bring calm in the middle of chaos.

Emergency responders often must set aside their family’s needs, money worries, work-life balance, health issues, and other priorities to serve their communities. The traumas they face are not for the faint of heart. But it’s often the compounding effect of these stressors that create the perfect storm of mental health issues for responders.

In one study of EMS professionals, 69% said they never get a chance to recover from one event before being called to the next.1 Another study found that 40% of responders do not report their mental health concerns2, shelving them until they have no choice but to address their growing distress.

Addressing mental health

This should not be the only time we discuss mental health – especially in our first responder and military communities. These jobs are tough by their very nature. Trauma, disaster, and crisis are inherent in the profession. Focusing only on the negative aspects of these professions does a disservice to those who choose a life of service. It sends a message that makes them feel diminished.

This does not have to be the case. As we compassionately raise awareness of the mental health stressors and grim issues of suicide, depression and anxiety, we can also focus on hope. Our country is facing a crisis of hopelessness because we haven’t balanced the conversation about stress and mental health with evidence of post-traumatic growth, peer support and social connections.

A focus on the positive

How about a Post-traumatic Growth Awareness Day instead of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Day? Despite the trauma and distress emergency responders and military members experience, they also experience significant psychological, relational and spiritual growth as a result of the service they provide, the research shows3. These growth areas can become protective factors throughout their careers and can be nurtured.

What if we reclaimed the value of “esprit de corps” and nurtured relationships amongst peers to support each other through difficult situations?  What if, instead of looking away, we looked towards each other, recognizing that struggle is something all humans face; and if it is something we all face, then it’s something we should all recognize in each other.

What if, we stopped fearing struggle and hiding from things that hurt us and cause grief or pain. Instead, we could embrace it and explore how it could make us better humans, friends, spouses, and emergency responders?  What if instead of hiding from what hurts us, we see potential to leave the world a better place.

Creating awareness of trauma

Trauma is a very real part of life.  And understanding comes through awareness of the issues facing our public safety community. We have a moral responsibility to our communities to offer hope, not a diminished life.

This Post-traumatic Stress Awareness Day, we invite you to also celebrate Post-traumatic Growth Awareness Day.

To learn more about the First Responder Initiative for Post-traumatic Growth, visit: Struggle Well

To learn more about how FirstNet®, Built with AT&T supports post-traumatic growth, visit: FirstNet Health and Wellness Program For First Responders

Josh Goldberg is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Boulder Crest Institute for Posttraumatic Growth. Josh is responsible for the development, delivery, study, and scaling of transformative programs based on the science of Posttraumatic Growth (PTG). Josh led the development of the first-ever program designed to cultivate and facilitate Posttraumatic Growth – Warrior PATHH – which is now delivered in nine locations across the country. Josh works to integrate notions of PTG into the military and first responder cultures through the Institute’s Struggle Well Initiative, and has trained more than 20,000 service members and first responders in the principles of PTG. In 2018, Josh co-authored Struggle Well: Thriving in the Aftermath of Trauma, with Ken Falke, Boulder Crest’s Chairman and Founder.   In 2017, Josh was named as one of 60 Presidential Leadership Scholars, a program established by the presidential centers of George W. Bush, William J. Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Lyndon B. Johnson.  Josh is an avid meditator, reader, and traveler.

Dr. Courie leads the FirstNet, Built with AT&T commitment to First Responder Health and Wellness. Joining the team in May 2020, Dr. Courie is responsible for creating, developing, and implementing FirstNet strategies, campaigns, and programs that will advance first responder health and wellness. As a part of this effort, Dr. Courie established the FirstNet Health and Wellness Coalition that brought together the C-suite leadership of over 24 national public safety organizations, representing over 5.1 million first responders to address the most pressing public safety wellness needs. Dr. Courie holds a Bachelor’s in Nursing from Clemson University; a Master’s in Nursing Education from the University of Wyoming; and a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree from Ohio State University. She is a Board-Certified Public Health Nurse. Dr. Courie is a passionate Clemson football fan; loves to read, cook, walk, hike; and an avid traveler. She and her husband, Treb, reside in Columbia, SC with their two human children, and two fur-ball children. 

1 Bentley, et al, 2013; https://www.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/dtac/supplementalresearchbulletin-firstresponders-may2018.pdf 


3 Tedeschi, R., Moore, B., Falke, K., and Goldberg, J. (2020).  Transformed by Trauma.