Secondary PTSD – What is it?

secondaryPTSD(This is PART TWO in series of PTSD – What Is it? by Robert Rabe) CLICK HERE to read Part 1

EDITORS NOTE: the following is a guest post from Robert Rabe a Vietnam Veteran who also has 39 Years of Law Enforcement Experience.

Every critical incident has similarities, and everyone is different. And 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 turned to becoming 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,the children can suffer from secondary PTSD, which is not widely discussed in the mainstream media. Secondary PTSD, while not recognized with diagnostic criteria, is based on the concept, that… those who care for or interact with the officer, who suffers from PTSD, can also become traumatized. Much discussion about this concept has come from the families of veterans returning from military service.

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. 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 a 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 reject
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”.

Want to learn more? Find an excellent article for the spouses of veterans entitled: “Women Who Love Vets, The Greatest Numerical Casualty Statistic of the Vietnam War” by Dr. Oscar Ramirez at this link:

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Bob Rabe, is a Vietnam Veteran (military police), with 38 years of Law enforcement experience. He has been involved in Critical Incident Stress Management for over 20 years. He developed stress Seminars – 14 years. He has volunteered his time to over 50 debriefings Involving law enforcement.

We at like and support the Peer Support Team Training provided by Jack Digliani, Ph.D., Ed.D. You can find his free materials available for download here on or you can visit his website to learn more about his training at:

Jack A. Digliani is the police psychologist for the Loveland Police Department and Larimer County Sheriff’s Office (Colorado). He provides psychological services to department members and their families, and is the clinical supervisor of the agencies’ Peer Support Teams. He has worked with numerous municipal, county, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. He specializes in police and trauma psychology, group interventions, and the development of police, fire, and other emergency service peer support teams.

Dr. Digliani is a licensed psychologist and a former deputy sheriff, police officer, and detective. He served as a law enforcement officer for the Laramie County, Wyoming Sheriff’s Office, the Cheyenne, Wyoming Police Department, and the Fort Collins, Colorado Police Services (FCPS). He was the FCPS Director of Human Services and police psychologist for the last 11 years of his FCPS career. While in this position he provided psychological services for employees and their families, and clinically supervised the FCPS Peer Support Team. He received the FCPS Medal of Merit for his work in police psychology.

You can download a free copy of Jack Digliani’s Police and Sheriff’s Peer Support Team Training Manual by CLICKING HERE

You can download a free copy of Jack Digliani’s Critical Incident Handbook by CLICKING HERE

If you feel like you or someone you know is suffering from PTSD and are in need of immediate help please contact your family physician or call the Safe Call Now crisis hotline for first responders at 1-206-459-3020

Safe Call Now is a resource for public safety employees to speak confidentially with officers, former law enforcement officers, public safety professionals and/or mental healthcare providers who are familiar with your line of work.

You can learn more about Safe Call Now at their website at:

About Editor

John Marx was a Police Officer for twenty-three years and served as a Hostage Negotiator for nineteen of those years. He worked as a patrol officer, media liaison officer, crime prevention officer and burglary detective. Also during his career he served as administrator of his city's Community Oriented Governance initiative through the police department's Community Policing project. Today John combines his skills to consult with businesses about improving both their security and their customer service programs. John retired from law enforcement in 2002. When one of his friends, also a former police officer, committed suicide at age 38, John was devastated and began researching the problems that stress creates for police officers. He decided he needed to do something to help change those problems and he wanted to give something back to the profession that gave him so much. He started a project that has evolved into Put simply, the mission of CopsAlive is to save the lives of those who save lives! gathers information, strategies and tools to help law enforcement professionals plan for happy, healthy and successful careers, relationships and lives.
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  1. Dr Steele,

    Thank you for affirming the devastation our family suffered. We found PTSD is an acute, crippling, chronic injury. Many people, both inside and outside of our police agencies and at all levels are ignorant of the horrendous effects of PTSD, but rather view it as a weakness. Mr Trump clearly demonstrated his ignorance a few nights ago. We fased this ignorance within my loved one’s agency at the federal level. They repeatedly used words like “You’re being just too sensitive.” , “You need to just get over it.” and the one I’ll never forgive them for, “If you tell me you’re not alright we will take your badge and gun.” This only served to force my loved one to try to put it in the past rather than seeking help and drove the injury deeper! Watching as your loved one suffers the unthinkable, first by the traumatic events and more later by those in charge and being helpless to do anything to stop it, difinitely can and does cause secondary suffering. We had no idea how to move forward…family need help too!

  2. Hi Jeff,
    Thank you for your very kind comments!

  3. A “spot on” article about a topic that is rarely addressed. Secondary PTSD is real. How many times do first responders come home and try to decompress by sharing a tragic story with their significant other? These loved ones may have no training or exposure to critical incidents, yet they become the “shoulder to cry on”.These family members listen to these stories, experience the emotional stress of their love ones who were involved in the incident and often times find themselves impacted as if they were there. Hats off to Robert Rabe. He has now extended the educational reach on PTSD to the families who now can better understand this complex issue that impacts our first responders.

  4. Bill,
    Thank you for your comments and insights!

  5. Thank you again, and thank you for supporting a family member in law enforcement!

  6. Hello Dr. Steele,
    Thank you for your kind comments and insights, and thank you also for your work with the TLC Institute.

  7. Every incident needs to be finished and closed for the debriefers. Short team meeting at a differant site is necessary. Context would compare to a “diffusing”.
    What were your thoughts, emotions ? How are you feeling now. ? One half hour of “mindfullness” could be a benefit. If you have any of the normal reactions lingering, call your team leader or clinician.

  8. I just want to support Mr. Rabe’s article about secondary trauma sometimes referred to as secondary wounding or victimization. This is rarely discussed or written about yet practitioners know all to well that family members of those law enforcement members experiencing to PTSD become vulnerable to the reactions. These can be as severe and induce tyremdous on all family members and the family’s vulnerability to additional stress. Anyone experiencing reaction in the checklist should seek help from a well trained trauma specialists…Dr. Steele father of a police officer

  9. I would just like to thank Bob Rabe for his article on secondary wounding/PTSD of family members of officers experiencing PTSD. There has been many good articles about officers with PTSD but rarely are family members thought to be vulnerable to PTSD or secondary wounding. This is because of the erroneous belief that PTSD is caused by certain situations or incidents when in fact neuroscience makes it clear that it is not the situation but how we experience the situation that leaves us traumatized. Family members who come to fear their law enforcement spouse or parent become vulnerable to secondary wounding and many of the reactions of PTSD. Mr. Rabe’s article and checklist will hopefully help sensitize us to that vulnerability, as well as normalize these reactions for family members who will need support and help dealing with what can become an upside down world of fear, worry, self induced guilt.Thank you Mr. Rabe.

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