First Responders Battle Mental Health Stigmas

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Around 90 percent of first responders —military, police, firefighter, paramedics and EMTs — agree that mental health is just as important as physical health, according to a recent survey, but they prefer not to talk about it.

Given their high-stress environment,  first responders often have difficulty maintaining mental health. According to the University of Phoenix survey, 47 percent of first responders feel there would be repercussions on the job for seeking professional counseling, including different treatment from supervisors and peers and being perceived as weak by colleagues. Approximately 1 in 5 adults suffer from a mental illness in the United States, yet a toxic stigma surrounds mental health.

First responders continue to battle their mental health. | Photo by Senior Airman Kelsey Tucker

Even with approximately 2.8 million police officers, firefighter and EMTs, and around 1.3 million active duty military members as of 2017, first responders may still avoid discussions about their mental health. Responders are under constant pressure to keep calm and keep moving forward, but they need to recognize when they are experiencing symptoms of PTSD, acute stress or depression. According to American Addiction Centers, “First responders are often at a greater risk of suffering from depression than other professions because of both the nature of their jobs and the culture in which they operate.”

Depression begins to manifest itself with thoughts of hopelessness, emptiness and thoughts of suicide. Those struggling with depression may also withdraw from family and friends and experience mood changes like irritability. If depression or anxiety of left untreated, it may result in suicide ideation and attempts. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, yet the stigma to ask for help is so pervasive.

“The issue is that no one wants to speak about it out loud,” said Samantha Dutton, Ph.D., LCSW, program director for University of Phoenix College of Humanities and Sciences. “They don’t want to have the conversation because of the stigma. I find that — and so does the survey — when you speak about mental health, this opens up the door, sheds a light on it.”

Regardless of the stigma, more than eight in 10 first responders do believe that people who receive counseling generally get better. “I think that if people would look at [mental health] like physical health, you know someone was walking around or attempting to walk around sick, you would say, ‘Why aren’t you at the doctor?'” Dutton said. “Peers have the greatest influence — even having someone say, ‘Hey, I went to see a counselor’ or ‘how about you seeing a counselor?'”

Even those minor suggestions, according to Dutton, can make it seem like “a good idea” to seek mental health support. “Saying it out loud to someone makes them feel more comfortable and not alone. Actually having conversations about mental health is one of the best ways to combat mental health or the stigma around mental health.”


Elizabeth Nouryeh

Writer for Hers Magazine. Poet. Lover of words. Bears, beets, Battlestar Galactica.

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