First responders suffer more from mental health issues than the general public. This group of individuals is exposed to more significant trauma on a regular basis. Research shows it’s resulting in increased rates of mental health disorders and suicide. In fact, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), upwards of 30% of first responders develop behavioral health conditions.
First responders are specially trained individuals who respond to emergency situations first and are oftentimes not only putting themselves in harm’s way but also witnessing horrific scenes, conditions, and behaviors by others. Police officers, firefighters, emergency medical, 911 dispatchers, and related personnel. Not only do these individuals face the initial challenging and often dangerous situation, but first responders are also usually the first to reach out to disaster survivors, families, and loved ones to provide them with emotional and physical support.
These services are essential and keep communities and community members safe and supported particularly during crises and emergencies. However, the toll exacted on first responders can be heavy, particularly with time. Years of responding to tragic scenes and seeing the worst of humanity can lead to serious mental health issues including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, and suicide. It’s essential to raise awareness about the mental health issues impacting this group and break the barriers they may face for treatment.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more police officers and firefighters die from suicide each year than in the line of duty. Reports indicated that each year about 140 to 300 police officers commit suicide. In addition, the rate of suicide for firefighters is also higher than the general population with about 105 dying each year by suicide. EMS personnel are also nearly 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide than the general population.
Depression, PTSD, and Suicide Plague First Responders
Mental health issues that most commonly impact first responders are depression, PTSD, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation. After all that these individuals experience on the job, it’s easy to see why they would be impacted by these issues. One of the risk factors further increasing the issue is that most first responders don’t have time to process traumatic events before they are faced with another equally traumatic event.
Most first responders don’t get the mental health support they need, particularly in the workplace. What’s more, COVID-19 and the civil unrest in the United States are making the issue worse. It’s essential that first responders have the ability to access mental health support and services when they need them.
Depression amongst first responders is higher than in the rest of the population. Recent data reveals that about 30% of all first responders have depression or PTSD. About 9% of the general population suffers from depression. This clearly illustrates how much higher the rates of certain mental health disorders are for this group. Depression impacts daily life and depending on how severe it is can lead to more serious issues like suicide. SAMSHA’s Disaster Technical Assistance Center bulletin reports that 37% of fire and EMS personnel have contemplated suicide—that’s nearly 10 times higher than the general population.
In an article for the American Counseling Association, Drew Prochniak, a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) and licensed professional counselor (LPC) points out why first responders may suffer more from these mental health conditions.
“Our worst day is first responders’ every day,” he says. “Their days are filled with accidents, pain, grief, loss, and trauma.”
It’s no wonder they are suffering more from these mental health conditions. It is vital that first responders also have access to counseling and support services tailored to meet their unique needs. For example, a counselor who may work well with members of the general population may not be trained or able to work effectively with a first responder. First responders need to be able to share the difficult, painful, and often grisly details of their experiences, not all counselors are equipped to deal with this. However, it’s more vital today than ever.
Many of these traumatic events they face also cause PTSD. PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder occurs when a person experiences or witnesses a traumatic event. First responders do this every day. PTSD can impact daily life from flashbacks to anxiety and more.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 18-24% of emergency dispatchers and 35% of police officers suffer from PTSD. Yet despite these overwhelming and growing numbers, most first responders’ organizations don’t provide adequate support for these issues. Data shows that of the more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the nation, only 3-5% have suicide prevention training.
Traditionally, first responders are thought of as ‘tough’ and able to handle trauma. And while this may be true, it’s essential to realize that everyone needs support at some time or another. This mentality of first responders having to be strong and tough adds to the stigma for them to get help. Many times seeking help is thought of as being weak, particularly in this community. It’s vital to break the stigmas associated with depression, PTSD, substance abuse, suicide, and more. This is particularly true for this group who are taking their own lives at unprecedented rates.
Access to Mental Health Care for First Responders
In addition to the barrier of stigma being attached to seeking mental health care, there is also a lack of resources for first responders. As mentioned, this group needs support specifically targeted to meet their unique circumstances and needs.
When mental health issues such as depression, PTSD, and substance abuse are ignored, the results can be devastating. In most cases, these mental health conditions only worsen without help. For some who suffer from depression or PTSD, it may lead to substance abuse issues including alcohol abuse. Many times first responders self-medicate to relieve the pain, memories, and stress. And while at first, this may seem to ‘take the edge off’ for some this will lead to full-blown addiction to alcohol or drugs. When this happens, there is a co-occurring disorder such as depression and alcohol abuse. With co-occurring disorders, it’s critical to treat both issues at the same time.
It’s vital that first responders have access to treatment for mental health disorders. One of the reported barriers is the associated stigma. Another reported barrier is the cost of mental health care. There are currently both state and legislative proposals to allow first responders to utilize worker’s compensation in order to get the mental health treatment they need.
In a report from the Ruderman Family Foundation, president Jay Ruderman expressed the importance of helping first responders.
“First responders are heroes who run towards danger every day in order to save the lives of others. They are also human beings, and their work exerts a toll on their mental health,” said Ruderman. “It is our obligation to support them in every way possible – to make sure that they feel welcome and able to access life-saving mental health care. “
The mental health of first responders impacts more than just them. In addition, family, loved ones, friends, and coworkers can be negatively impacted. When someone is suffering from depression, PTSD, anxiety, substance abuse, etc. their families and loved ones can also be detrimentally affected. It’s vital that first responders are able to get the help they need so they and their families can live healthy, happy lives too.
At Futures Recovery Healthcare we are devoted to helping first responders and their families get treatment for mental health conditions including depression, PTSD, anxiety, and substance abuse. We understand how important it is for these individuals to have comprehensive, customized care that addresses their unique mental health needs.
Our Hero’s Ascent First Responders’ Track, helps to identify any underlying conditions such as trauma, chronic pain, addiction, and other issues commonly experienced by first responders. In addition, medical, psychiatric, individual and group therapy, physical therapy, and neurostimulation are incorporated into treatment plans as needed. Family therapy also plays an important role in treatment for first responders. Therapy, support, and resources are provided to help family members understand their loved one’s mental health conditions and support them through their recovery.
If you are a first responder and living with depression, PTSD, substance abuse, or another mental health concern, Futures can help. In addition to our Hero’s Ascent First Responders’ Track, we have a program for mental health support only.
You don’t have to suffer anymore. After taking care of others and putting your life on the line, it’s time to let others support you. Don’t suffer in silence. Futures can help. Contact us confidentially online or call 866-804-2098.