It’s not difficult to imagine that first responders need mental health support. The things they experience every day would keep anyone awake at night. The difficult thing for the first responders is talking about mental health support. Then doing something about it.

First Responder Mental Health Problems

What does it mean to be a first responder?

  • Trying desperately to save an old man’s life. Then needing to tell his wife of 60 years that your efforts were unsuccessful and her beloved husband died.
  • Looking at the fright in a young girl’s face and knowing that if you did manage to save her life, she’d soon find out that her legs were gone.
  • Trying to help someone — anyone — in a scene of unbelievable pain, death, and destruction.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a police officer, firefighter, paramedic, or nurse. You’ll run into these types of situations on a regular basis. Maybe not every day, but often enough that it helps shape who you are. Large-scale tragedies are becoming more common. First responders face mass shootings, mudslides, and forest fires. But first responders can also run into traumatic events just by helping at a traffic accident.

First Responders Feel the Stress

People don’t become first responders for the glory. They do it because they want to help people. Unfortunately, their selflessness makes them prone to developing mental health problems. In 2018, the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) and two NBC news agencies decided to find out more about first responder mental health. They sent surveys to firefighters nationwide, and 7,000 of them completed the survey.

The survey is one of many that highlight the problems of first responder mental health. PTSD, depression, and substance abuse are just some of the mental health issues first responders can face.

The survey results show that:

  • 19 percent of firefighters have thought about committing suicide.
  • 27 percent have struggled with substance abuse to deal with their job.
  • 59 percent have had problems with family and relationships.
  • 65 percent relive traumatic experiences.
  • 81 percent believe that getting help will cause others to view them as unfit to keep their jobs.

It’s also interesting that the stress seems to have a cumulative effect. Another question in the survey asked whether first responders believe their mental health issues are the result of PTSD. In the early days of their careers, they don’t see the connection as much as they do as time goes on.

Of respondents with less than five years on the job, 53 percent related their issues with PTSD. At 15 years, that number goes up to 75 percent. Of respondents with 25 years of service, 81 percent relate mental health issues to PTSD.

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Natural Disasters Present Unique Problems

Natural disasters cause different kinds of problems for a number of reasons. For example:

Lack of control. Many first responders become frustrated because they can’t control things like hurricanes or floods. On the other hand, sometimes local, state, and national governments could have done more to reduce the impact of a disaster. That causes a new level of anxiety and frustration, and feelings of helplessness.

First responders become victims. Take the example of firefighters struggling to control a wildfire. They’re trying to assist others and stop the spread of the fire. At the same time, they may be victims themselves. They must continue to do their jobs while their families and homes may be in the path of destruction. Worrying about loved ones and dealing with their own losses simply increases the stress that they feel.

Disasters are widespread. Hurricanes, flooding, and extensive property damage can tear a community apart. At those times, first responders need the sense of community to deal with disaster. But the only community they can count on are other first responders. However, the disaster also affects other first responders. That makes it difficult for them to help their co-workers.

Disasters don’t have a neat ending. Most people in the community can start the recovery process as soon as the threat has passed. For first responders, the state of emergency lasts far longer. They must continue efforts to rescue survivors, and recover the bodies of those who didn’t survive.

Disasters reoccur. Hurricane season comes every year. In recent years, forest fires are just as seasonal. The anniversaries of a disaster can trigger more stress and anxiety.

It’s easy to understand how the stress of handling a natural disaster can make PTSD and related problems even worse. Besides the mental challenges, first responders deal with overwork and interrupted sleep. It’s difficult for them to cope with the disaster in a healthy way.

Roadblocks to Seeking Help

The University of Phoenix commissioned a survey on first responder mental health in 2017. That survey indicated that 84 percent of first responders have seen traumatic incidents at work. Besides that, 85 percent of first responders experience symptoms that they relate to mental health issues. And medical professionals have diagnosed 34 percent of first responders with a mental health disorder.

Why Don’t First Responders Seek Help?

It’s not due to the lack of available services. The fact is that 74 percent of the first responders surveyed said that there are mental health services they could use. The biggest obstacle that keeps these professionals from getting the help they need is the humiliation they will suffer if they do so.

Thirty-nine percent of first responders say that there would be harmful results if they use the mental health services available at work. Here are the consequences they expect:

  • 55 percent believe that their supervisor will treat them differently.
  • 45 percent say co-workers will think they are weak.
  • 34 percent believe that they won’t get promotions.

First Responders Think They Must Be Superheroes

The stigma that comes with seeking mental health care comes from two sources. Co-workers, friends, and the community in general are a problem. They often attach a negative stereotype or stigma to first responders seeking help. People think first responders must be strong, infallible, and in control. Admitting to a mental health issue puts many first responders in a vulnerable position.

The second source of pressure is self-stigma. First responders themselves tend to think that they are at fault for needing help. They also believe that they should be unstoppable, and the community reinforces that idea. The pressure from their communities and themselves can easily damage a person’s self-esteem. The decision to remain silent concerning their symptoms seems the only logical course of action.

Let’s Make It OK to Talk About First Responder Mental Health

There are many first responder mental health programs. They range from in-house programs to programs offered by mental health professionals. The real key to helping first responders deal with mental health issues is removing the roadblocks that keep them from taking advantage of the services that are available.

No one thinks badly of a firefighter burned fighting a fire or a police officer hospitalized with a gunshot wound. Professionals and the community go out of their way to be supportive if part of a building falls on an EMT during a hurricane or tornado.

The reality is that mental health issues are just another work-related injury that first responders face. The challenge is to get their co-workers and their communities to start talking about it that way. Removing the stigma of seeking mental health care is the only way we’ll be able to make a significant difference in the number of first responders who are suffering alone. And there are alternatives, such as:

  • Teach first responders strategies for managing their reaction to traumatic situations.
  • Teach management and team leaders how to talk about mental health.
  • Teach management and team leaders how to encourage others to get counseling.
  • Teach all first responders that mental health issues are a work-related injury. Let them know that it’s a treatable condition. Point out that it doesn’t mean the affected person must leave their chosen career.

Communities depend on first responders. Breaking down the stigma of seeking mental health services and providing effective treatment are the least that communities can do in return. If you or someone you know needs mental health services, call Transformations at 888-919-2561 and get help now.


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