First responders are often the first to help someone in need. These interactions can potentially be traumatic. While they are heroes and help others navigate hardships, they do not always look after their own mental health. This article will discuss the importance of first responders and why they need to look after their mental health.
Exposure to Trauma Is Part of the Job
First responders, which includes police, firefighters, and EMS are the first on the scene of stressful and traumatic events. They deal with everything from accidents, fires, medical emergencies, and domestic disputes. Sometimes they might find themselves in a position where their own physical safety is on the line.
This is a daily part of the job, but even though exposure to trauma is a given, it can still have a negative impact on a first responders' mental health. First responders have a high likelihood of developing depression, PTSD, and even suicidal behaviors. According to a study done in 2017 by Northwestern, suicide deaths among police and firefighters were higher than those who died in the line of duty.
How Mental Health Is Impacted
The role of a first responder is to provide support in a community that is experiencing trauma. Constant direct and indirect exposure such as grief, injury, pain, death, and loss can negatively affect their mental health.
According to SAMHSA, it is estimated that 30 percent of first responders develop a behavioral health condition, compared to the general population of 20%.
First responder jobs involve a demanding schedule with very little time between calls. According to the same study from SAMHSA, 69% of EMS professionals do not have enough time to recover in between traumatic events. They reported that over 50% of firefighter deaths are due to stress and exhaustion. This is mainly because firefighters often have irregular sleep schedules and little time to process repeated exposure to traumatic experiences.
Suicide ideation is also common among police and volunteer firefighters. SAMHSA also found that the lifetime prevalence of suicidal ideation in police officers was 25% in female officers and 23.1% in male officers.
Substance Use and First Responders
It is common for first responders to “self-medicate” as a response to stress and PTSD symptoms. Career firefighters report high levels of alcohol misuse. Binge drinking was reported in 50% of male firefighters, and driving while intoxicated was reported in 9% of male firefighters.
Alcohol misuse is especially high for female firefighters, which account for 5.1 of the total firefighter population. In the same study, more than 60.5% drank more than the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommended. Binge drinking was also reported in 39.5% of the female firefighter population, compared to 15% of women in the general population. Additionally, 4.3% reported driving while intoxicated.
Why First Responders Ignore Their Mental Health
Unfortunately, mental health is not a common topic in many first responder agencies. There are many reasons why mental health is ignored or put aside.
One major reason is stigma. First responders are seen as strong and brave. Being able to take on anything is valued in the workplace, and seeking mental health support is thought of as a sign of weakness.
Another reason is fear of consequences if they seek mental health support. Many are afraid of facing consequences like demotion or getting fired. Because of this, mental health concerns are not reported to superiors. A study from SAMHSA found that about three-fourths of officers reported experiencing a traumatic event, but less than half of them told their agency about it.
What the Workplace Can Do for First Responder Mental Health
The mental health of first responders is not just a matter of personal responsibility. First responder departments need to advocate for their workers' mental health, as well. This includes the following:
allowing employees to prioritize their own needs over their work
managing shifts to allow employees to get plenty of sleep
creating a supportive work environment
promoting psychological safety alongside physical safety
It is also crucial that those who are concerned about their own mental health do not hold back out of fear of workplace retaliation. First responders need to make sure it is clear their agency is supportive of their employees' mental health.
What First Responders Can Do for Their Mental Health
It is vital that first responders prioritize their mental health. There are multiple things they can do to alleviate stress and process trauma.
Learn about resilience. Resilience means being able to cope with adversity and trauma. It is recommended that places of work have resiliency training, but it is also important for individuals to learn resiliency on their own. This includes building skills like managing stress under pressure and recovering after traumatic experiences.
Recognize the signs of burnout and compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is when an individual begins to feel numb in the face of disaster. It is similar to burnout, but it is common in first responder and healthcare jobs, as they are both constantly exposed to grief, loss, and trauma.
Prioritize self-care before, during, and after shifts. Self-care includes taking breaks, eating nutritious meals, incorporating daily exercise, and getting enough sleep.
Practice mindfulness to manage stress. First responders can practice mindfulness in the form of yoga, meditation, or breathwork. Mindfulness can also include body check-ins to look for signs of stress.
Being a first responder is a difficult job, but those who choose it as a career path do so because they care about their community. Unfortunately, the mental health needs of first responders are put to the wayside and many are unaware of how experiencing trauma daily can impact a person psychologically. We tend to forget that first responders are people who feel empathy for their community, and that can cause an enormous impact.
The empathy a person feels for their community should make them a better first responder, not a person who suffers long-term mental health consequences because they did not have the support. First responders and their agencies need to work together to create a safer work environment that supports resiliency and psychological safety.
Chateau offers resiliency training to help first responders and other individuals improve their ability to handle stressful and traumatic situations. To learn more, call us today at (435) 222-5225.