Emotional Health and First Responders
Have you ever put yourself in the boots of a firefighter; the sturdy shoes of a policeman, or the clogs of an emergency room nurse? The emotional stress and the overwhelming tragedy that surrounds these brave men and women are difficult to imagine. The distress, both to the mind and the body, is devastating. This stress often results in suicides, mental health issues, and physical maladies for those on the front guard.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2016, reviewed statistics for suicides among EMTs, paramedics, healthcare practitioners, firefighters, police officers, and those in the protective service occupations industry. This group, which includes other professions, as well, is called the Standard Occupational Classification Groups 29 and 33. They found that:
- According to the Associated Press, a survey Florida State University found that 47 percent of over 1,000 firefighters in Florida shared that they had suicidal thoughts.
- The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US.
- Women who are first responders have the highest rate of suicides.
Mental Health Issues
No one who has experienced a disaster, a car wreck or fire goes untouched by the event. But, first responders have individual phases they pass through as they work to save people lives.
- In the weeks following the disaster, people join together to help one another; altruism is abundant, and survivors are thankful and optimistic as the area bond together to clean-up, restore, and continue.
- Then comes the inventory of what has happened and the disillusionment that turns to discouragement and despondency resulting from feeling abandoned, resentment, burnout, and compassion fatigue. If wages or benefits are delayed, or emotional resources and social support wear thin, the depression can exacerbate.
- First responders, who are usually victims and rescuers, can be caught in a moral dilemma that finds them attempting to serve the community and deal with personal commitments to their families and friends.
- Civilians can be resilient and, for the most part, can process their losses and move on.
- Many of the first responders recover dead bodies, work with suicidal survivors, dig through belongings, and search for those who might have survived.
- Those rescuers who have pre-existing health issues are at higher risk for PTSD, depression, and anxiety.
- The pre-trauma exposure, chronic occupational stress, and pre-existing health issues make them more vulnerable to the harmful stress reactions.
USA Today reports that more suicides occurred among firefighters and police officers last year than all the line-of-duty deaths combined. Yet this shocking statistic gets very little attention. The Ruderman Family Foundation researched depression, PTSD, along with other issues that affect first responders and the rates of suicide in police departments across the US. Miriam Heyman, one of the authors of the study, said:
It’s really shocking, and part of what’s interesting is that line-of-duty deaths are covered so widely by the press but suicides are not, and it’s because of the level of secrecy around these deaths, which really shows the stigmas.
By the time a first responder reaches the scene of a fire, a disaster, or a crime, they witness sights that are difficult to take in, even by the most experienced teams. Additionally, it is next to impossible to un-see these horrific images of dead bodies, grieving loved-ones, and chaotic settings. Anyone participating in a violent incident, including policemen, or women, and firemen, or women, have put themselves in the line of fire. The impact on the psyches of these public servants also takes a toll on their minds, bodies, and spirits on a daily basis. Sadly, this fact is not recognizable, in most cases, until it has been experienced.
Unless first responders and those around them understand this dilemma, many go over the edge in one way or another. A few of the organizations that are working on supporting and healing responders are:
- Employee Assistance Programs (offered by most departments)
- The Code Green Campaign
- Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FFBHA)
Maybe it’s time to thank a first responder for the sacrifices he or she makes daily. Most of the rest of us do not run toward burning fires!