Friday, January 26, 2024

The Stigma Surrounding Mental Health Issues: A First Responder's Reality

First responder “culture” strongly emphasizes strength, self-reliance, and saving others. Many of these brave men and women are exposed to traumatic events on a daily basis, yet they often feel pressure to present themselves as unbreakable heroes. It’s almost as if they think that admitting to struggling with mental health is saying that they don’t have what it takes to do the job anymore.

It’s a false narrative. One that needs to be obliterated.

Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding mental health in the First Responder community is as strong as they are. In order to avoid negative judgments or repercussions at work, many first responders don’t report their symptoms or actively seek help. They fear of being labeled as weak or damaged.

This fear, while wrong, is not completely unfounded. On average, about one third of first responders experience a stigma regarding mental health issues. Some first responders have endured consequences when seeking treatment, such as losing their weapons or being assigned to desk duty.

Let's be clear - developing PTSD or any other mental health condition is not a sign of weakness. The idea that someone “gets” PTSD because they are not resilient enough, or because they already experienced trauma, addiction, etc. and are “damaged goods” is a dangerously false narrative. It basically equates PTSD to the flu and opines that PTSD attacks those with compromised mental immune systems.

Here’s a scary fact: 

30% of first responders develop behavioral health conditions including, but not limited to, depression and PTSD.

PTSD is a natural response to experiencing trauma, and it needs to be treated with the same level of urgency and care as any physical injury.

And not seeking help can have disastrous effects.

• First responders made up 1% of all suicides from 2015 to 2017. When broken down by response discipline, these first responder suicides occurred among law enforcement officers (58%), firefighters (21%), EMS providers (18%), and emergency medical dispatchers (2%).

• Emergency medical services (EMS) workers are 1.39 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population.

• In law enforcement, the estimates suggest between 125 and 300 officers commit suicide every year.

It's important for first responders to recognize when their work has begun to take a toll and seek support and professional help. The stigma isn’t helping anyone, especially not those whose job title is “hero.”

Seeking help is not a sign of weakness, it's a necessary step towards healing and maintaining overall well-being. When you get down to it. Recognizing you need help and reaching out for it is probably the strongest and bravest thing you can do.

That said, here are some mental health warning signs for first responders to look out for.

•     Threatening suicide or threatening harm to others

•     Displaying out-of-control or reckless behaviors

•     Increased feelings of anxiety or excessive worry

•     Hostility or insubordination towards others and supervisors

•     An unusual fascination with suicide or homicide

•     Withdrawing or isolating behaviors

•     Changes in sleeping patterns

•     And an increased use or beginning use of drugs or alcohol to cope.

This is not an exhaustive list, but if you or someone you know exhibits some or a combination of these signs, it may be time to seek help.


If you believe change is possible, you want to change, and you are willing to do the work, you absolutely CAN get your life back.”

Get your copy of The Soldier's Guide to PTSDThe Soldier's Workbook

or Acknowledge & Heal, A Women's-Focused Guide to PTSD

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