Breaking the Stigma
Prioritizing Mental Health for First Responders
The daily responsibilities of first responders are diverse and challenging, requiring a combination of technical skills, quick decision-making, and a commitment to public service. Each day can bring new and unpredictable situations, underscoring the importance of their training and dedication to the communities they serve. This line of work often takes a toll on the mental health of first responders.
To make matters worse, a lingering stigma surrounding the conversation of mental health for first responders prevents many from receiving the support they need. Help may not be readily available, or if it is, first responders often feel uncomfortable reaching out for assistance in this area. Many times, asking for help feels like a weakness rather than a sign of being human.
What is this stigma surrounding mental health costing us? Unfortunately, and all too often, it’s costing us the lives of first responders whose suffering leads them to choose suicide.
Suicide rates for first responders
Data shows that the likelihood of suicide cases among first responders is 1.39 times greater than among the general public. Additionally, suicide attempts among first responders are ten times greater than among the public.
In a Ruderman Family Foundation study on Mental Health and Suicide of First Responders, statistics showed that suicide was a more likely cause of death for police officers and firefighters than their regular line of duty.
What contributes to suicide rates among first responders?
In their rigorous and unpredictable jobs, first responders are faced with repeated exposure to trauma. On any given day, they can deal with homicides, car accidents, fires, drownings, cardiac arrests, and countless additional crises. The reality of this line of work means first responders are either dealing with acute stress (from one specific incident) or chronic stress (from a build-up of stressors).
Many first responders suffer from the effects of long work hours. It’s common to regularly maintain a schedule of 10, 12, or 24-hour shifts. This contributes to physical and emotional exhaustion in an already stressful work environment.
An article in Forbes titled Sounding The Alarm: Firefighters Remain More Likely To Die By Suicide Than On Duty describes the line of work as carrying a “culture of toughness” that often prevents first responders from receiving the help and support needed. The idea of asking for help can feel weak in a job culture where mental toughness is prioritized.
How can we break the stigma?
Breaking the stigma surrounding mental health in the first responder community is a crucial step toward fostering a healthier and more resilient workforce. Here are some key strategies to chip away at the misconception that asking for help means weakness:
Normalize the Conversation:
- Open and honest conversations about mental health should become a regular part of the first responder dialogue. Emphasize that seeking support is a sign of strength, not weakness.
Education and Training:
- Provide comprehensive mental health education and training programs. Equip first responders with the knowledge to recognize signs of distress in themselves and their colleagues. Understanding mental health can reduce fear and uncertainty.
- Leaders within the first responder community play a pivotal role in breaking the stigma. When leaders openly discuss their own mental health challenges and advocate for seeking help, it sets a powerful example for the entire team to follow suit.
Anonymous Support Systems:
- Implement anonymous reporting systems and hotlines to encourage first responders to seek help confidentially. Creating avenues that protect privacy can reduce concerns about potential repercussions.
- Help is readily available in the form of counseling services. First responders can take advantage of free services from The Compassion Alliance, with access to trauma care from vetted therapists. Whether it’s with our team at The Compassion Alliance or another organization, the important step is reaching out for help. Conversations with professional therapists can provide crucial support for first responders in need.
Peer Support Programs:
- Establish peer support programs where first responders can connect with colleagues who have received training in providing emotional support. Peer support can break down barriers and create a sense of understanding within the community.
The first responder community faces unique challenges that necessitate a collective effort to prioritize mental health. It is crucial to create a culture that recognizes the importance of seeking help and embraces the truth that it’s “ok to not be ok.” By breaking the stigma and fostering an environment that supports mental well-being, we can contribute to the resilience and longevity of those who selflessly dedicate their lives to protecting and serving others.
If you or someone you know is seeking help, please reach out to Compassion Alliance. We provide free and confidential Trauma Therapy Services for First Responders and their families!