Mental Health Care for First Responders is Critical

By May 28, 2021December 6th, 20228 Comments

First responders often risk their lives every day. Firefighters, nurses, paramedics, emergency medicine doctors, lifeguards, police officers, trauma surgeons, and emergency dispatchers all deal with traumatizing events as a matter of course. Simply put, it’s their job.

Because of this, they are at increased risk of developing mental health issues such as stress, anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The very protocols they are expected to follow may be anxiety-provoking. Emergency dispatchers, for example, are expected to follow a protocol that can be painstaking depending on the situation.

The protocol is often inadequate for the unique situations faced by callers and may provoke anger and ire on behalf of the caller, not to mention considerable anxiety on the behalf of the emergency dispatcher. This may seem easy to overcome but consider the following situation.

Imagine walking a family through the process of trying to revive a child that is already, clearly dead. Imagine having to calm someone in the midst of being attacked, or assaulted, when they obviously can’t be calmed.

Imagine not being able to deviate from the script, no matter the nuances of the situation. Considering this, it’s easier to understand how the anxiety provoked by this situation may become chronic or even rise to the level of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Further, first responders never know what the day will bring or where it will lead. Considering that “the worst” the day could bring is so significant, this can be an incredibly stressful prospect. Some police officers experience a life-threatening event by simply going to work, putting on a uniform, and starting their day without knowing if it’ll be the day they are viciously attacked or injured.

Research supports this. One survey found that 80% of first responders dealt with traumatic events in their line of work. 86% of respondents in another survey said they’ve experienced “critical stress.”

Results of one study illuminated the relatively high rates of suicidal ideation among first responders. Suicidal ideation for first responders is 37%, while the national average is only 3.7%. Suicide was attempted by 6.6% of first responders while the CDC’s national average sits around only .5%.

Conversely, only 55% of respondents were educated on the impact of PTSD. Meanwhile, only 13% sought treatment for PTSD. Only between 10-15% had been diagnosed with the disorder.

PTSD can be considered a normal response to abnormally stressful situations. It can also compound over years. Numerous stressful events occurring throughout a career can cause PTSD.

Individuals may experience an array of symptoms after encountering events that are extremely stressful, dangerous, or threatening. Exposure can occur both directly and indirectly. For example, emergency dispatchers routinely deal with and hear details of traumatizing situations happening to others. Police officers may struggle with losing partners or colleagues.

When symptoms resulting from traumatizing events persist for at least a month or longer, an individual might be dealing with PTSD.

So, how does all of this manifest in the day-to-day lives of those suffering from PTSD?

Symptoms vary, but they all can affect everyday functioning. They can turn an individual’s life upside down, changing the way they respond to situations and think about themselves and the world.

Symptoms include reoccurring memories, flashbacks, nightmares, and emotional or physical reactions to triggering events. Often, these memories occur when individuals are alone and especially when they are trying to relax.
Avoidance is common and may involve avoiding thinking or talking about the event or avoiding places, people, and activities that might trigger remembrance of the event. This is one way those suffering from PTSD avoid reliving what happened to them.

For instance, someone that was involved in a car accident may refuse to drive again. Or, a police officer involved in a deadly shooting may become panicky near guns though they weren’t before.

There may also be changes in mood and memory. Friends and families may notice that sufferers adopt an increasingly negative outlook on life, or sufferers may become numb or hopeless. Problems with memory, relationships, detachment, and lack of interest or enjoyment may occur.

It is not uncommon for sufferers to struggle to remember even very important things, even if they have to do with the traumatizing event itself.

Sufferers may startle or frighten easily, may be constantly on guard, or engage in self-destructive behavior. They may also suffer from insomnia and difficulty concentrating.

Karen Lansing has studied and treated PTSD in numerous police officers, military personnel, paramedics, and firefighters. She argues that extreme sleep deprivation causes many of the symptoms associated with PTSD. Yet, it may manifest as just one more symptom of PTSD in the first responder’s life.

When you better understand how impactful PTSD can be, it might become harder to understand how so many individuals can suffer in silence. However, one must consider that first responder’s complete jobs every day that often sees them regarded as heroic and unmovable. Part of their very job description might as well be “you will occasionally have to suffer in silence.”

Further, first responders feel guilt, shame, and embarrassment, just like the rest of us. This might be compounded by their unique positions in society. Imagine admitting you need help, though you were the one to survive a shooting “unscathed” while the rest of your colleagues perished. Unfortunately, it may seem downright selfish.

Individuals may worry about the very real prospect they will lose their job if it’s “found out” that they are suffering from mental health issues. Some first responders simply don’t know where to go, or, they may worry that the information they share with a mental health professional may not be kept safe.

This merely compounds the effects of PTSD and makes it less likely that first responders will get help. This is why getting help from a licensed mental health professional is so crucial. Individuals shouldn’t suffer alone. Also, suffering from things like anxiety, depression, PTSD, or suicidal thoughts does not make a person weak or unprofessional.

It’s worth noting that counselors are legally obligated to keep information shared by clients confidential. Therefore, those seeking help shouldn’t worry about repercussions to their work life.

We all rely on first responders every day, even if not directly. They keep us safe. This can make it even more difficult for them to recognize when they need help themselves. Still, the truth is that doing so might be the first step to getting the relief they deserve.