A 2018 study conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported that 30% of all first responders have some type of mental health illness or struggle due to their careers. This statistic has been pushed since the pandemic, as first responders now also have to deal with the weight of possibly being exposed to COVID-19, and then subsequently exposing their loved ones at home as well.
Many mental health conditions, such as depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal ideation, etc. are more common among first responders. And while they are all usually required to undergo intensive training to prepare physically for their demanding and oftentimes dangerous jobs, perhaps they are missing some training when it comes to being prepared emotionally and mentally.
The emotional toll of first responders
First responders, including firefighters, police officers, and emergency medical personnel have to witness horrific events on a daily basis, something that ordinary people do not encounter. They are usually the first to arrive at the scene of stressful and possibly dangerous events. Oftentimes, they also carry the burden of having to break bad news to family members and affected loved ones. The nature of their work makes them inherently more at risk, as these traumatic experiences can easily lead to mental health concerns, like stress, anxiety, PTSD and depression and sometimes even suicide.
Additionally, the physical demands of their challenging work can also take its toll. Most first responders deal with sporadic and burdensome schedules as well as a lack of safety and security, which can lead to lack of sleep and other physical and emotional health concerns. This is clearly and devastatingly presented through Northwestern’s 2017 sutdy, which found that suicide deaths among firefighters and police officers outnumbered the amount of deaths in the line of duty.
Are there resources available? Is it enough?
There are various resources available to first responders, but unfortunately, the burden falls on the individual themselves to seek these resources out. The following are a few vetted resources that are dedicated to supporting first responders:
- Operation Gratitude: This organization thanks first responders for their service by providing letters, drawings, snacks, hygiene products, and notes through care packages to boost morale
- For the Frontlines: This organization offers free counseling for essential workers and healthcare professionals dealing with mental health concerns, especially anxiety, stress, fear, and isolation. You can access them by texting FRONTLINE to 751751 for free crisis counseling.
- First Responder Canine: This organization provides Service Dogs to first responders dealing with life-altering injuries (mental or physical) such as PTSD, brain injuries, and physical mobility disabilities.
There are many more that can be found from a quick Google search, but as seen above, they all rely on the individual first responder reaching out for help. It is imperative that we recognize the emerging and existing mental health issues that first responders could have and keep them safe by establishing a more positive work environment that provides adequate training for the mental health and resiliency of first responders.
Supporting the mental health of first responders starts with fighting the very common stigma within the industry. Since characteristics like strength, bravery, and grit are all highly valued in the field, many first responders often take on a “whatever it takes” mentality that causes them to feel as though mental health conditions are a sign of weakness. Oftentimes, conversations surrounding mental wellbeing are danced around or left unsaid. However, the alarmingly high rates of PTSD, substance abuse, depression, and suicide in the field point to a desperate need for addressing mental health concerns.
Speaking up about mental health in any setting will create pathways to recovery and decrease the stigma, especially if these conversations are able to creep into the work culture and environment as well. In a recent survey conducted by the University of Phoenix, almost 80% of first responders indicated that they would be more likely to seek professional help if a leader in their organization spoke openly about their own experiences or if their peers/colleagues spoke up.
Employers have a responsibility to proactively support the mental health of their frontline workers, and this change starts within the workforce.