The Culture Shift In First Responder Mental Health

By Joseph Hunter, M.A. – First Responder Wellness Program

First responders are on the front lines of traumatic events day in and day out.  They are constantly exposed to terrible things that most people could never imagine, and then have to work amongst that chaos trying to save as many lives as possible.  The norm for first responders has been to bury those experiences and memories as far down as possible; to act like they aren’t affected by what they witness every day.  But with the rise of mass shootings over the past few years – 159 mass shootings in the United States through July 2018 – and the realization that first responders need to have their voices heard, the stoic culture is starting to shift.

How Trauma Affects First Responders

First responders exhibit levels of PTSD similar to combat veterans.  Events like 9/11 come to mind when you hear this information, but what many people don’t realize is first responders see trauma on a daily basis.  Constant exposure to traumatic events, the physical strain of the job, life-threatening situations and little sleep can all add up to mental health issues like PTSD.  As many as 20 percent of first responders don’t recover from their traumatic experiences.  And on top of that, 69 percent of EMS paramedics have never had enough time to recover between traumatic events.  (1)

All of this is a result of a lack of understanding around mental health and first responder’s not seeking help.  Luckily, greater awareness around trauma and mental health is making it easier for people to recognize the signs and speak up.  Symptoms of PTSD in first responders often include:

  • Insomnia
  • Memory problems
  • Paranoia
  • Flashbacks
  • Feeling on edge
  • Easily startled
  • Intense anger
  • Lack of interest in former hobbies
  • Guilt
  • Depression
  • Avoidance

A Shift is Starting

While still a long way to go, there’s already been a shift in how people are addressing first responder mental health.  In some cases, that’s starting with employers who are developing better peer support and shifting their culture and work environments to focus on mental health.

Mass shootings like the one that took place at the Las Vegas country music festival have sparked a response from first responders themselves, opening up about the horrific events they witnessed and experienced.

And this shift in how first responders and the public view and tackle mental health hasn’t stopped there. Other positive signs include:

  • More organizations available for first responders and medical personnel to receive treatment and improve mental health.
  • More people in the public eye sharing their struggles, with this openness filtering down to the first responder community.
  • Greater national attention around mental health in the main stream media and by our world leaders.
  • More conversations around first responder trauma, with some experts suggesting that superiors of first responders get the ball rolling by telling their own stories.

Getting Help

For a first responder suffering from trauma, the hardest step is opening up and asking for help.  But putting off treatment and therapy due to fear or shame can ultimately lead to self-medicating and additional challenges like addiction.  There’s no shame in seeking treatment if you’re struggling to cope with the trauma you’ve experienced on the job.

It gives you the opportunity to heal and may even help other first responders who have kept their own struggles hidden for so long.

References: 

  1. First Responders: Behavioral Health Concerns, Emergency Response, and Trauma. (May 2018). SAMHSA.gov

If you, someone you love or someone you know needs help, call:

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