It’s no secret that first responders like firefighters, EMTs and police officers have dangerous jobs. Anyone in these positions understands the obvious risks involved in entering the line of duty. From fires and 911 calls to emergency and disaster response, first responders regularly place their lives on the line.

Contemplative man looking out windowThere is a silent threat on the rise among these brave men and women, a danger not advertised in job descriptions or discussed around the water cooler at the station. In fact, this threat thrives in the darkness, feeding off of the isolation it often creates in its victims.

Along with the physical danger inherent in first responders’ jobs comes an ever-present vulnerability to behavioral health issues, substance abuse and addiction. Whether from routine stressors or singular traumatic events on the job, firefighters, police officers and EMTs are particularly susceptible to mental health disturbances ranging from anxiety and depression to post-traumatic stress and suicidal tendencies.

Job-related Stressors Increase Risk of PTSD, Other Behavioral Health Issues

According to studies, 25 percent of people exposed to traumatic events will develop PTSD.1 First responders are repeatedly exposed to potentially traumatic situations, putting them at great risk for developing PTSD and related symptoms. Routine occupational stress and poor sleep quality, both of which are often reported by first responders, have been shown to increase this risk.

According to Jeff Dill, founder and CEO of the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, trainees are not adequately prepared for the mental impact of what they will encounter on the job.2 Among the most troubling incidents are calls about child deaths, deaths of co-workers on the job and calls in which a person they help reminds them of someone they know. Emotional distress from traumatic experiences can last for years, especially if it goes untreated.

Social support plays an important role in management of mental health disturbances, and the culture of fire and police departments doesn’t encourage openness about such things. First responders are the heroes—they’re expected help others, not ask for help, which can foster a culture of silence about mental health. Even in departments that do offer help, there can be a stigma attached to taking advantage of these resources, and in some cases consequences include bullying and even job loss. Often first responders aren’t given the opportunity to adequately process the things they witness on the job, which can lead them to ignore the emotions and allow them to fester.

Dill tells first responders that if they’ve been on the job, they suffer from some level of post-traumatic stress. He reminds them that they are still human beings with human emotions, and it’s not healthy to stifle those emotions just because of the culture in which they work.

Untreated Mental Health Disturbances Can Lead to Addiction, Suicide

When left untreated, issues like anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress can lead to alcohol and drug abuse and suicidal tendencies, and on-the-job access to drug supplies may heighten the risk of addiction. According to one study, suicide rates among firefighters and paramedics have grown nearly every year since 2011.3 A survey of more than 4,000 first responders found a rate of attempted suicide nearly 10 times that of the general population.4 Like many of the dangers these workers face every day, this truly is a matter of life and death.

Organizations and squads throughout the country are raising awareness about these issues and working to change the culture from one of silence to one of support. The key is bringing these issues out into the open and encouraging first responders to talk to each other about mental health. Once problems are brought into the light, they can be dealt with properly before it’s too late.

Finding the Right Treatment Is Key

Fortunately, there’s help for those who need it. There are programs specifically catered to professionals who are struggling with mental illness and addiction. The Landing at Lakeside Behavioral Health is a residential facility for working professionals that provides high quality care in an environment where those seeking treatment can stay connected to family and career demands throughout their stay. The Landing offers individualized care based on each client’s needs, including trauma resolution, Motivational Interviewing and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, as well as group therapies targeted toward working professionals and a host of amenities.

With the right kind of help, behavioral health issues and substance abuse can be treated and overcome. If you or someone you know is a first responder suffering due to work-related trauma, don’t remain silent. Speak up and reach out. It could save a life.

By Wesley H. Gallagher


Sources

1 Marmar, Charles R. et. al. “Predictors of Posttraumatic Stress in Police and Other First Responders.”

2 Erich, John. “Earlier Than Too Late: Stopping Stress And Suicide Among Emergency Personnel.” October 10, 2014.

3 Bah, Abdulai. “Amid Culture Of Silence, More Firefighters Die Of Suicide Than On The Job.” Al Jezeera America, February 20, 2016.

4 Venteicher, Wes. “Increasing First Responder Suicide Rates Spark Concern.” U.S. News, March 25, 2017.