When it comes to first responders, we often forget about the mental toll their jobs can take, but it's time we start talking about it

Helping the People That Help Us: Why Mental Health Benefits First Responders

May 1, 2023

Protecting the health and safety of the population is a vital part of being a first responder. Every day, first responders are exposed to natural or human-caused disasters, including death, grief, injury, pain, and loss, as well as threats to personal safety, long working hours, physical hardships, and poor sleep. 

These factors are necessary to preserving national and community safety, yet the impact that the role has on first responders causes many mental health conditions including depression and anxiety, substance use disorder, PTSD, and even suicidal ideation. These issues can be addressed head-on by providing first responders with robust mental health support.

Let’s take a look at the proactive approaches that can be taken to protect the mental health of teams working on the front lines.

The Unique Challenges First Responders Face

The term “first responder” can refer to any professional with first-line contact in emergencies. This includes law enforcement, firefighters, paramedics, EMTs, and public health workers. 

First responders are chronically exposed to stress and traumatic scenes in the line of duty. These high-stakes conditions can easily build and take enormous tolls on mental health. Here are just a few statistics that reflect these tolls:

  • Suicidal ideation among police officers was revealed to be 25 percent in female officers and 23 percent in male officers.[i]
  • Suicide attempt rates among police officers are as high as 55 percent based on extensive literature reviews.[i]
  • It is estimated that 30 percent of first responders develop behavioral health conditions—including depression and PTSD—compared to 20 percent in the general population.[ii]

In addition to the inherent risks of first responder positions, studies have shown that many first responders experienced increased stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This was caused by several factors, including the fear of COVID exposure during emergency responses, concerns about infecting family members, and frustration surrounding new work policies.[iii]

Fighting Stigma Among First Responders 

The primary role of every first responder is to help others. The traits of strength, bravery, and grit are highly valued, but the mentality of doing whatever it takes to protect others can be taken too far. Within these communities there exists a stigma surrounding mental health conditions. They are often misconceived as signs of weakness.

Rarely are conversations about mental health brought into public spaces to break this stigma. But high rates of depression, PTSD, substance abuse disorders, and other mental health ailments can be addressed when first responders receive the right support. 

Speak up about mental health.

Stigmas become the norm because they are reinforced by large numbers of people over an extended period. To adjust attitudes toward mental health, the stigma needs to be interrupted. Although this can and should happen at every level, it must happen from the top down. In fact, according to research conducted by the University of Phoenix, first responders are more open to mental health solutions if team leaders speak about their own experiences.[iv]

Promote the practice of self-care.

First responders experience the intense physical and mental demands of the job daily, making recovery and replenishment essential. Employers and leaders need to encourage, model, and help facilitate healthy behaviors such as adequate sleep, balanced nutrition, regular exercise, and dedicating time to family and friends, hobbies, and other activities that bring purpose to their lives.

Recognize the role of resilience.

Resilience is often attributed to the actions of first responders based on the inherent challenges in the roles, but coping and overcoming adversity needs to extend to mental health. First responders need specific and continuous training on methods that help them cope with the stresses of the job. Resilience training helps to guard against burnout, manage stress under pressure, and recover after traumatic experiences.

Promote mental health services.

Employers and leaders should promote—but cannot be expected to provide—mental health services. Outside services with mental health providers offer several services that directly engage with mental health conditions and provide the tools needed to manage symptoms.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of many interventions that encourage patients to judge and reflect upon each thought, ensuring the thought is true and accurate before allowing it to guide emotions and actions.

Taking Action To Support First Responders 

Addressing the mental health of first responders is a complex and constantly-evolving topic, especially during the aftermath of COVID-19 and the new stressors the pandemic introduced. Although there is no one-size-fits-all solution to first responder mental health, organizations can take positive steps in the right direction: 

1. Prioritize mental health. 

Create a workforce wellness strategy that prioritizes mental health and wellness, suicide prevention, and anti-stigma efforts. One of the easiest ways to do this is by connecting with the internal mental health services team or a local mental health organization. Post their promotional material around the workplace, send information through a newsletter, or host professionals for informational sessions.

2. Emphasize the importance of both mental and physical health.

Physical health and safety measures are standard across all fields of first responders. The same should go for mental health. Leaders need to be proponents of mental health by fighting stigmas and creating a culture that accepts and supports the reality of first responder mental health.

3. Incorporate lifestyle therapies.

First responders may be aware of the benefits of physical exercise, diet, sleep, and other benefits to the body; but educating them on the power that lifestyle therapies have to benefit the mind is crucial. Reframe physical wellness as an important part of mental health by contextualizing these behaviors as major keys to success, resilience, and happiness.

4. Train employees to recognize warning signs.

Outside services can help train first responders to identify signs of mental health conditions and what to do if someone could be at risk. Establishing peer support programs can help identify these signs. Through these programs, first responders have safe people to talk to, which in itself can be incredibly helpful.

5. Invest in mental health education programs. 

Although peer support and mentorship are important, those confided in might not know how to help. That is why it’s vital to establish mental health education programs for both those experiencing symptoms and those who seek to provide support.

These programs help attendees identify symptoms and solutions to those symptoms. Self-diagnosis becomes much more effective after they complete a program that gives them the ability to get out of a state of mind when something triggers their depression or anxiety.

Implement a Mental Health Education Program

Every community depends on first responders for safety. Their responsibilities can be dangerous, stressful, and psychologically taxing. When symptoms of depression and anxiety arise, it’s not always easy to ask for help.

It’s a strength, not a weakness, to address mental health among first responders; this begins with education. Understanding symptoms, triggers, and solutions ultimately leads to coping with the stressors that arise during and outside of the job. 

Take the next step by implementing a mental health education program that uses evidence-based information, practical interventions, useful tools, supportive volunteer staff, and group accountability.

[i] First responders: behavioral health concerns, emergency response, and trauma. SAMHSA.

[ii] Luster, R. (2022). First Responders and Mental Health: When heroes need rescuing. Psychiatric Times.

[iii] McAlearney, A. S., Gaughan, et al. (2022). PandemicExperience of First Responders: Fear, Frustration, and Stress. Internationaljournal of environmental research and public health19(8),4693.

[iv] University of Phoenix. (2018). University of Phoenix Survey finds 93 percent of first responders say mental health is as important as physical health.

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