Experiencing any kind of trauma can have a huge effect on someone’s mental health and can change their outlook towards the world around them. Trauma is a part of daily life for first responders, as they are not just tasked with, but expected to run head-first into dangerous, traumatic, and life-threatening events from violent shootings to fires and other natural disasters. Exposure to this consistent stream of traumatic experiences takes its toll on each person, and as a result, the effects of trauma can build up inside the minds of first responders. Not only can this lead to a number of dangerous practices, such as trying to self-medicate one’s trauma with drugs and alcohol, but it also greatly increases the risk of suicide in first responders.
First responder suicide is a serious issue that plagues many people tasked with keeping everyone else safe, and addressing the presence and severity of the trauma they experience on a daily basis can help begin a conversation about first responder suicide prevention.
Stress on a Daily Basis
First responders are exposed to a myriad of stressful, and even impossible, scenarios on a daily basis. Not only is dealing with just one of these stressful events incredibly taxing on a person, but the stresses and traumas can often compound as a first responder is asked to address a new traumatic situation before they have had the time to mentally work through each previous event. With constant exposure to traumatic experiences as well as little personal time to recover from each stressful event, suicide can become increasingly likely as the mental toll begins to compound. USA Today reported that 103 firefighters, as well as 140 police officers, died by suicide in 2017 alone, making the risks of suicide very apparent, and showcases the need for a change in order to help prevent suicide in first responders. If issues causing this increased risk of suicide are left unaddressed, first responder suicide rates are unlikely to change and the tragedy surrounding the situation will remain.
What It Means to Prepare for the Worst
Preparing for these worst-case scenarios typically only covers the physical health of the first responder. Law enforcement officers, firefighters, and other first responders are provided with protective equipment in order for them to deal with various situations. This can include bullet-resistant vests, fireproof suits, or proper safety techniques in order to help de-escalate situations or rescue other civilians while minimizing the potential damage to oneself. However, very little of this preparation is done on the mental front.
While first responders are taught how to physically protect themselves, they can be left ill-equipped to mentally prepare themselves for the traumas that they will see in their daily lives. Being able to protect and care for one’s mind is just as important as caring for their own physical health, and the risks involved with being unprepared for the mental toll that being a first responder carries can lead to the increased risk of mental health disorders, substance abuse disorders, and especially suicide.
Experiencing Trauma’s Raw Form
Traumatic and disastrous occurrences are often reported by journalists, and across various news outlets. While there are often photographs accompanying the instances, there is no replacement for being on the ground, in the moment. News outlets may censor parts of the footage from the event and create a more sanitized depiction of the event to be digested by the public, by omitting things like blood or other more gut-churning images of destruction or loss of life. First responders on the scene themselves aren’t granted the privilege of having a film across their view of the tragedy and trauma. Experiencing this trauma firsthand not only makes the weight of the situation even more impactful on a person’s mind, but also can make talking about the trauma much more difficult. It can create its own wall, as a first responder might have difficulty having a conversation with others about the traumas they’ve seen — most people are only exposed to these events in the news, and thus have a very different experience with it. These differing views can complicate discussions, or even add to the stress of trying to seek help for coping with their traumatic experiences.
Trials of Social Expectation and Stigma
First responders are undeniably heroes in many communities. They are bastions of strength and protection, and simultaneously symbols of hope in members o
Coupled with the idea that they are always having to put on a strong front is the idea that therapy still carries a social stigma, as well. In the eyes of some, attending therapy can be a sign of weakness. Despite this false notion, the stigma that a first responder can be perceived that way can be a barrier to seeking the mental health support they need, in an effort to continue carrying the weight of their heroism. Constant exposure to trauma, as well as a social barrier that may exist keeping first responders from being able to process this trauma, can create a situation where self-medication may be used, and mental health disorders are allowed to manifest and grow, developing into persistent anxieties, depression, PTSD, and suicide. This can be furthered by the fact that the need for professional help to address these traumatic experiences isn’t a widely known public issue, and certainly isn’t talked about with any regularity in common discourse.
Trauma Begets Trauma
First responders are also susceptible to their own professional issues if their mental health needs and experiences with trauma are left unaddressed. Unaddressed trauma and the issues of anxiety, depression, PTSD, and suicidal tendencies can all cause someone to act more rashly during the next highly intense, traumatic event. First responders may begin to not consider their own physical safety at all, and acting rashly can put them in further danger and complicate already potentially traumatic events. Not only does this beget furthering traumatic experiences, but it also complicates the first responder suicide rates. While suicide is certainly an issue within first responders, it doesn’t account for those who acted rashly in these circumstances as a result of their trauma and lost their lives in the line of duty due to the mental toll they had taken and had been unable, or unallowed, to address. First responder mental health statistics are important to address, as examining this information can help prevent suicide in first responders if suicidal tendencies are identified early.
Trauma is a constant for first responders in the line of duty. Constant exposure to trauma, and having to constantly expect trauma to be just around the corner, is immensely mentally taxing. While the way to help each first responder cope with their trauma will differ, knowing and sharing in the need for them to be people just as often as we see them as heroes is important. Allowing them to continue to express their strength means allowing them to be vulnerable with the traumatic experiences that they protect their communities from on a daily basis. Allowing this dialogue to become normalized can not just help first responders get the help they need to avoid self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, it can also help them feel free to address the anxieties, depression, or PTSD that they may very well be experiencing. Most importantly, it can help each person permit themselves to get the help they need in order to prevent suicide in first responders.