First responders are subject to any number of traumatic situations. From life-threatening encounters to scenes of domestic abuse or destructive and bloody crime scenes, the mental health of first responders is always a concern. However, due to the stigma associated with PTSD, trauma, or mental health, first responders may not reach out to others for the support they need to process each traumatic event. First responder stress can go unchecked, and lead to a number of other problems that they may have to face. Normalizing counseling for first responders and breaking down the stigma that surrounds mental health can allow each first responder to comfortably reach out for the help they need following stressful and traumatic events.
The Problem Isn’t Isolated
The idea that only a few first responders would suffer from PTSD, anxiety, stress, or anything else related to their mental health is a fallacy. Due to the nature of their jobs, whether someone is an officer of the law, firefighter, or EMT, stress is commonplace through all different facets of being a first responder. Many of one’s colleagues may have shared similar experiences or may even be actively concerned about their mental health. However, even if such experiences are widespread within the community of first responders, few may reach out for help regarding them, even if many first responders agree there is an issue that needs to be addressed.
According to a study conducted by the University of Phoenix in 2018, “nearly all first responders (93%) agree that mental health is as important as physical health, and more than 8 in 10 (83%) believe that people who receive counseling generally get better.” However, talk about one’s own mental health needs as a first responder is still met with several hurdles.
Image of Strength
Being a first responder is a noble course that is synonymous with hope and protection. However, this mentality has its drawbacks. Not only can it instill the idea that as a first responder, they should be able to handle anything, but it also takes away the human element that is present in all first responders. Each one is a courageous person, but they are still people that are exposed to stressful and traumatic events on a daily basis. First responders are much more than just the image of strength they are taught and proud to exude. The public, as well as first responders themselves, can all benefit from realizing that mental health, stress, and PTSD can affect anyone, especially in such a dangerous line of work.
Letting Go of Shame
Shame is another factor that can cause first responders to be more reluctant about reaching out. This shame can be produced as a result of the notion that a first responder is somehow “letting others down” by acknowledging their own needs for mental health services. Deconstructing this shame is important, as not only does it then allow someone to take care of themselves, it overall permits someone to rest and let down their guard. Deciding between one’s perceived shame of reaching out for counseling for first responders and the help they may need can add additional stress to already difficult situations.
This shame may also manifest as a sign that they are somehow weaker than their first responder peers. However, reaching out may have the opposite effect overall. While someone may feel shame by allowing themselves to ask for help, the same study conducted by the University of Phoenix also found that if team leaders normalized talking about their mental health, “82 percent [of first responders] say they would be encouraged to seek professional counseling. Peers have an even greater influence, with 89 percent.”
Fear of Repercussions
Regardless of how necessary many first responders may agree the services are, there is always the fear of repercussions if someone is found to be seeking mental health services. Whether it be professional discrimination or loss of status within their community, unit, or precinct, first responders can feel as if they have to choose between their mental health and their professional lives. However, the career of a first responder and mental health services go hand in hand and aren’t enemies of each other in any way.
Addressing one’s mental health is an active part of getting better as a first responder in the field. Not only can it provide many coping techniques to help prevent burnout or mental fatigue, but it can give someone a better understanding of the effects these situations have on civilians, as well. Some mental health facilities, such as Chateau Recovery, employ the idea that learning to take care of yourself means you can then better take care of others in the field while also providing the space for you to let down your guard and address your emotional state. Learning how PTSD can be dealt with out in public for oneself can also translate to employing your coping strategies for others in high-stress situations.
Addressing the stigma that surrounds mental health in first responders begins with seeing one’s health is just as important as anyone else’s. Whether someone is reaching out to a colleague in their community with shared experiences, or expressing this need on a familial front, understanding that first responders are people, too, is paramount in creating an atmosphere where each person can take care of themselves. With all of the protection and care, they give to their communities, normalizing talking about the intense situations can empower each first responder to take care of themselves in the same way that they take care of others in the line of duty.