Secondary PTSD

by Bob Rabe
April 2014

Every critical incident has similarities, and everyone is different.  Every law enforcement officer’s reaction is individual to them as well.  Some officers go through the process of integrating the experience into their psyche without difficulty.  Usually this is with the help of others (peer group counseling, debriefings).  It is difficult to do it alone.

But what can the family possibly do to help the officer?  The family can make sure that nothing is missed, especially if medication is needed.  But sometimes medication or even intervention isn’t good enough.  Needless to say, if the officer has become sullen and melancholy, they are a different person than before the critical incident and onset of PTSD.  At this point, the family becomes the secondary victim, and loyalty is tested.  The spouse and the children can suffer from secondary PTSD, which is not widely discussed in the mainstream media.

Bob Rabe
Bob Rabe

Secondary PTSD is based on the concept that those who care for or interact with the officer who suffers from PTSD, can also become traumatized.

Secondary PTSD results from having knowledge of a critical incident experienced by another individual, and the stress from helping.  Secondary PTSD is nearly identical to PTSD (see Part One), except the exposure to the critical incident is indirect.

Today, many law enforcement personnel and their families suffer from PTSD and the battle that rages within. But the good news is that PTSD and Secondary PTSD is treatable.  The next step is finding help, and for families to learn the characteristics of Secondary PTSD.

Please read the following:

• spouse fears what might happen the next time the officer has another fit of rage.
• fears the officer will someday leave and abandon the family and never come back.
• fears what might happen to the officer when they are not home.
• fears “middle of the night surprises”.
• fears “if just one more thing happens, I’ll lose my mind”.

• sorry for putting the children through the trauma.
• feeling that it’s my fault; if I were a better spouse, they would be different.
• guilt for spending money on themselves, or having a hard time just having fun.
• feels guilty for just about everything.

• sense of helplessness and hopelessness.
• “tired of trying,” set up for disappointment.
• low self-esteem – poor appearance, dirty home.

• spouse feels that she cannot be truly intimate with the officer and feels rejected by them. They see the inability of the officer to share their emotions.
• feels rejected by friends who no longer come around.
• feels rejected by the community because of lack of support or social interaction.

• spouse, children and family may have few friends or be unable to relate to friends as they would like to because the officer has alienated them with his attitude.
• the few friends or family the spouse does have are tired of hearing about the troubles.
• may escape into fantasy world or romantic fiction,TV, thoughts of affairs, compulsive buying.

• may lean on children, friends or others too heavily for emotional support.
• constant tension and anxiety because the spouse never knows what they will do next.
• financial insecurity leads to tremendous anxiety.

• spouse denies having problems; after all, in spite of the circumstances, look how well I keep it together.
• denial that God or anyone else can help the spouse or the officer. “We have already tried everything and nothing has worked”.

About the Author: Robert “Bob” Rabe, is a Vietnam Veteran (military police), with 38 years of law enforcement experience and 26 years as a firefighter. He has been involved in Critical Incident Stress Management for over 20 years and has developed and taught seminars on stress reduction for over fourteen years. Bob has volunteered his time to over 50 debriefings involving law enforcement officers.
Another article by Bob Rabe: PTSD – What Is It?

Additional Readings:
There Is No Superman! The Role of the Spouse in the Fire Service
What Does She Know About PTSD?