Intensive EMDR for First Responders


Intensive EMDR for First Responders

Constant exposure to traumatic critical incidents takes a toll on anyone, no matter how resilient, strong, or well-supported that person may be. Common mental health concerns for first responders include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), alcohol use disorder, substance use disorder, anxiety, depression, and suicide. These are completely understandable given the nature of what first responders are exposed to, day in and day out, on the job.

Percentage of First Responders that Experience Mental Health Concerns

  Emergency Medical Services and Dispatchers Firefighters Police Officers and Correctional Officers General Population
Major Depression 11% – 24% 11% -24% 9% – 31% 6.7%
PTSD 14.6% – 24% 14.6% – 24% 35% 6.8%
Thoughts About Suicide 46.8% 46.8% 23% – 25% 5.6%
Alcohol Use Disorder 33% – 50% 33% – 50% 16% – 48% 5.3%


Many first responders with job-related mental health concerns struggle to adequately perform. One study found first responders with PTSD show performance deficits on complex cognitive tasks, including assessing risks, planning multi-step emergency responses, and paying attention to more than one thing simultaneously. Another study of more than 3,000 firefighters found that those who had PTSD symptoms were more likely to report having work-related injuries.  In addition to difficulties at work, first responders who experience mental health concerns often have significant difficulties with important relationships. Even more seriously, first responders die by suicide at a rate that is at least twice that of the general population. It’s clear that lack of efficient mental health treatment is a recipe for disaster for first responders.  

When considering treatment options, the main concerns are time, cost, and convenience. Weekly conventional talk therapy is one option, but it can take months or years and is costly ($150-$250 per week). Satisfactory results are also not certain with the conventional approach. For example, a review of randomized controlled trials in the treatment of military-related PTSD found that about two-thirds of clients still met the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis after conventional talk therapy treatments.  In contrast, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is an integrative psychotherapy approach that has been extensively researched and proven effective in the treatment of trauma and other mental health issues. EMDR is recognized as an effective treatment by the U.S. Dept. of Veteran Affairs/Dept. of Defense, the World Health Organization, and others.

EMDR is a structured therapy that has a client briefly focus on a trauma memory while simultaneously experiencing bilateral stimulation (typically eye movements or tapping), which reduces the vividness and negative emotions of the memory.  There have been more than 44 positive controlled outcome studies conducted on EMDR therapy. These reveal that 84-90% of clients with a single major trauma exposure no longer had PTSD after just three 90-minute EMDR sessions. Another study showed that 77% of combat veterans were free of PTSD symptoms after only 12 EMDR sessions. In a randomized controlled trial, just two early intervention EMDR sessions were effective in reducing symptoms of work-related PTSD, anxiety, and depression in active-duty first responders.  

EMDR can be delivered either in weekly, one-hour sessions or in full- or half-day sessions. Studies have found that short-term, intensive treatment offers many benefits over longer-term weekly EMDR therapy. It improves client retention by reducing dropout rates. It lowers the risk of treatment disruption by crises that can occur between weekly sessions. Results are seen faster with intensive therapy, so first responders can resume work more quickly. Further, intensive treatment may be safer than conventional weekly therapy by reducing the risk of a client becoming destabilized. The intensive format allows for more time to help stabilize clients, and clients can often resolve a trauma memory in a single half- or full-day session. EMDR can be utilized with individual clients or in a group format to treat a larger number of people at once.   If you are interested in learning more about intensive EMDR therapy for first responders in your department or to schedule an intensive session, please contact us at 978-999-2165. 


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