Peers, Counselors & Psychologists – Establishing Credibility with the First Responder Community

Anyone who wishes to help first responders in regards to mental health, resiliency and wellness will always be held in high regard by us. Establishing credibility is a key component. Let’s face it, first responders can be a closed community at times. Who we decide to open up to is vital to personal, mental and physical safety.

When we became certified peer support, those who chose to open up to us knew we were fellow law enforcement officers and a law enforcement couple. That’s credibility. This is why peer support is a successful avenue to help others.

The next level above peer support are licensed professional counselors and psychologists. How many horrible stories have you heard from first responders about talking to someone who knew nothing about what we have to deal with? Unfortunately not every counselor or psychologist understands our world. That’s why it’s important for us to stress for your agencies to have access to first responder knowledgeable mental health professionals. We know some great ones. Hats off to all of you.

In our recent travels we have met a licensed professional counselor and a psychologist who understand first responders because they are already part of the community. In essence they are peer support with even more tools in their tool boxes.


From her website Code 4 Couples:

Code 4 Couples is the brain child of Cyndi Doyle, Licensed Professional Counselor and Law Enforcement Officer Wife. She has a passion for helping to Law Enforcement Couples with her personal experience of being married to a Law Enforcement Officer and her professional expertise as a psychotherapist in private practice that works to with individuals and couple to create authentic and intimate lives. She has co-owned a group private practice for the past 8 years in Denton, TX. Her additional training includes Certification in Critical Incident Stress Management and serving on a CISM team in the DFW area. She was selected by the Office of the Governor to be one of 3 mental health professionals to serve on a statewide work group focusing on Mental Health Access for First Responders in response to Texas HB 1794.


Cyndy Doyle with “That Peer Support Couple,” Javier and Cathy Bustos. (Photo source: Authors)

Stephanie Conn, Ph.D

Stephanie is the author of “Increasing Resilience In Police And Emergency Personnel.” Prior to her practice Stephanie worked as police officer in Texas. She is also married to a police officer.

From her website First Responder Psychology:

I earned a PhD in Counseling Psychology and an M.S. in Criminal Justice. I trained in EMDR, the recommended treatment for trauma. I studied factors that influenced officers’ ability to cope with traumatic stress, factors that helped officers maintain work-life balance, and the decision-making processes of seasoned first responders regarding leaving the job … My heart is in my work. When I was an officer and peer support team member, I found a shortage of mental health providers who understood the unique nature of the work. I realized my greatest contribution would be to fill this gap. I’ve taught other providers what I know about the first responder culture but there’s no substitute for experience.


From left to right, Cathy Bustos, Dr. Stephanie Conn, Javier Bustos. (Source: Authors)

Cyndi and Stephanie were provided with a list of questions to share their thoughts. We hope their responses will be enlightening and helpful for you.

  1. Was it an easy decision to help first responders based on your personal experience in the community?

CD: “My decision to jump in more and help with the first responder community came from a couple of my therapy clients telling me that they had been to several therapists prior to me that they did not connect with due to being asked to leave their gun in their car, targeted for problems in their relationship, their mindset not being understood and shamed for it, as well as damage being done by well-meaning individuals. I realized that I could help one person or couple at a time, but I wanted to make a broader impact on the community than what I could do in my office in Denton. My personal experiences definitely ignited my desire to help. I am trained in mental health and relationship issues but even with those skills, we struggled so I could imagine the struggles individuals and couples in the community had without them.”

SC: “It was a no-brainer. I saw the gap in culturally-competent mental health services and the strong need first responders have for working with someone they trust. It was a natural transition from peer supporter to mental health clinician.”

  1. How often do you face resistance from patients to open up before they find out you are already part of the community?

CD: “HA! I find this even though they know I am a part of the community! Therapists are always seen with suspicion and that we have some type of voodoo, want to make people break down and cry, and will report. While there is some safety because it’s out there that I’m a part of the community, it’s not until we develop a relationship that patients (clients) put their guard down. This also happens the first time I call them out on their armor and front that they put out there. When they realize I see through it, they start to get more real. When they see I can empathize and see through their eyes, they relax.”

SC: “Resistance to opening up is rarely an issue anymore. First responders do their homework and most of them already know my background before they come in. Others learn of my background through word-of-mouth referrals or because my background is described on a distributed list of culturally competent clinicians. Myself, and other first responder clinicians, work very hard to increase trust by being transparent about our backgrounds and relationships with first responder agencies.”

  1. What advice do you have for others who want to become first responder peers, counselors and psychologists?

CD: “Our therapeutic skills apply to everyone. As a therapist, we must meet our client where they are at, which in this case means seeing the world through the eyes of the first responder. There is a reason behind their perceptions and coping skills. Learn to walk in their shoes and meet them where they are at, whatever that takes. This will look different for everyone. For me this meant talking to my husband’s mentors and finding those that have been in the field that were willing to mentor me. Reading materials from the industry leaders is essential and for me this includes research and peer reviewed material like journal articles. It is important to understand the experiences, culture, and norms that impact their lives.”

SC: “If you don’t have the background as a first responder, become invested in learning as much as possible from first responders in the field. Go on ride-alongs. If you were a cop, go on ride-alongs with EMS, fire, and dispatch. Don’t pretend to know what you don’t know. Ask questions, watch, learn, and read about first responder culture. Then, you need to invest just as much time and effort in learning about trauma, trauma interventions, and resilience.”

  1. When listening to your patients how often do you see yourself or your spouse in them?

CD: “As a therapist, we are trained to separate our personal experience from that of our clients. We work hard to not see ourselves in our clients as that impedes our judgement and can skew the way we interact with clients. We have to be aware of this as therapists as it can lead to countertransference which impedes the therapeutic process. If I see my husband in someone, I may personalize a situation which would cause my views and feelings to become entangled with a client. Just like a first responder would have negative consequences seeing their child or spouse in a victim, we do as well. With that said, there are times when I can personally empathize with a situation as I have walked through something similar. I have to be aware of my personal boundaries and check in with my colleagues when something starts to bleed over. Just like if this was to happen in the field for a first responder, I have to know when I need some help and support.”

SC: “I see my former self, friends, and co-workers in many clients. Where appropriate and helpful, I share this with clients to normalize the challenges of the work. I think some clients believe that they are uniquely “damaged” by their challenges and I do my best to debunk this myth.”

  1. How do you balance your personal and professional life with your spouse?

CD: “As a therapist, it is essential that I manage my energy and watch out for burnout and secondary traumatic stress (STS). We are taught to have boundaries and as I have gone through my career, I have developed rituals that help me shed the heaviness of the day and renew my energy. This might include listening to music on the way home (sometime calm and sometimes it’s AC/DC) or talking to a friend or family on the way home. I also know that a giant hug from my spouse can energize me like nothing else so I get those whenever I can. We have learned to lean on each other instead of thinking that we need to be strong for each other. With his shifts and my late nights at the office, we make sure to schedule time to have conversation to decompress with each other and play. While my skills don’t go away, I show up in my relationship as vulnerable and open which is very different than the therapy room.”

SC: “Balancing personal and professional life is a daily challenge for everyone and I am not exempt from this. I try to do activities in my personal life that have nothing to do with my professional life activities. For instance, professionally, I spend a lot of time indoors, thinking and talking. So, I prefer to spend my personal time doing physical activities, creative projects, and being in nature. Admittedly, there are weeks when balance is just not possible. If that continues, I take a long hard look as to why it has become the rule, not the exception, and make changes.”

  1. Do you find it difficult to turn your professional self off when with your spouse?

CD: “My husband would laugh at this question and say that there are times when he is the recipient of some unintentional well-meaning therapy. It’s a part of who I am. Just like it is difficult for him to turn off an OODA Loop, it is difficult for me to not to ask him a challenging or probing question at times. There are skills and knowledge I have that benefit our relationship. Who would want to have someone to validate them and give empathy!?! The skills I have do not go away and we use them for our own relationship. Just like I would want him to utilize his skills to keep me safe in a violent situation, he is ok with me utilizing my skills to have depth and intimacy in our relationship. For the most part, I have clear boundaries with this. I have to bring myself to my relationship. Being in a therapist role with him prevents me from being vulnerable and developing intimacy so I leave that at the door of the office the best I can.”

SC: “No, because my husband would confront me about that within two minutes of trying it. He has been incredible in keeping me accountable to myself, in terms of wellbeing and balance.”

  1. What professional advice do you have to the first responder community?

CD: “Experiences impact us. Our brains cannot be exposed over and over again to negative events without impact. We may think that we can stuff or ignore, but ultimately there is some type of consequence. It might be depression, anxiety, pushing others away, numbing, looking for excitement, being bored, negative perceptions, or PTS. The body keeps score and the body always wins. We all must continue to work together to create a culture that allows first responders to speak up in their community when they are struggling. Vulnerability is a strength, not a weakness. In addition, your brain is exposed to negative events much of the day, work to find the positive and have appreciation of the good in humanity. I’m not talking rainbows and unicorns. I’m talking about the little things and simple kindness like someone holding a door open, someone who smiles at you, being appreciative of that text from a friend or spouse, or your kid laughing. The garbage in garbage out theory applies. Changing your perspective can make an impact in your mood and relationships.”

SC: Be proactive in taking care of yourself and fellow first responders. Partner with resources that will help you be healthy in a job that makes that a challenge—mental health professionals, chaplains, sleep specialists, nutritionists, physical therapists, etc., who can give you practical strategies. Include support for first responder families, as they are the strongest resilience factor for the first responder and are also impacted by the work. Lastly, include support for retirees, as they deserve ongoing support to offset the impacts of the work.

  1. What personal advice do you have for the first responder community?

CD: ‘Relationships are work. Period. Work at your relationships regularly and “show up.” Build intimacy and connection through sharing and empathy. What strengthened my relationship with my husband was working to see the world through each other’s eyes and being open with our struggles. It can be uncomfortable at times. Neither of us likes to be seen as “weak” and for many years we were “tough” and took pride in the sacrifices we were each making. All that did was disconnect us instead of bringing us together. We were each in pain and lonely but for different reasons. Instead of blaming the job or each other, we got on the same team. Each time we get uncomfortable, we get closer. Get curious about what life is like for those people that are important in your life whether it is a spouse, friends, kids, or your parents and allow them to see what it is like in your world. Remember to listen and offer understanding instead of critiquing, personalizing or fixing.”

SC: “Establish a relationship with first responder clinicians before you need them. Treat your resilience building like you do your officer safety. You wouldn’t wait until you get hurt on a call to determine you need to sharpen your officer safety. Take the same approach to your health (physical, emotional, spiritual), mindset, and relationships. How is it any different?”

We hope you have gained some insight from Cyndi and Stephanie. The work they have done and continue to do for first responders is exactly what we need so we can live happy, healthy lives. When you decide to speak to a counselor or therapist make sure they understand our world, our customs and our language. This is important for your recovery.

Una Stamus & Celebrate Life!


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