Being a first responder is no easy job. If you are a first responder, or know someone who is, you know exactly what I am talking about. The average person’s worst day is considered just another day on the job for a first responder. First responders witness some of the most horrific things and are expected to carry on with their lives as if nothing happened. The first responder culture is a unique one. They have a special bond to one another that “outsiders” may not completely understand since it is hard for them to fully grasp what a first responder goes through daily. First responders are made up of all different job titles and duties, including: firemen, law enforcement personal, paramedics, EMT, search and rescue, and even 911 operators. However, they all tend to say the same thing when responding to a tragedy – “I was just doing my job”. Although a heroic statement, this mindset can create a burden on a first responders mental health and overall wellbeing as it normalizes the trauma they experience. It is estimated that 30 percent of first responders develop behavioral health conditions during their time of service, including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as compared with 20 percent in the general population as sited in the SAMSHA research bulletin (Abbot et al., 2015). Additionally, trauma is not the only hardship a first responder is known to endure. First responders are known to have the highest level of workplace burnout due to the stress relating to their job, as well as always being in a first responder role even when they are not working. First responders work long, difficult hours including holidays, causing them to be away from their families and loved ones. This contributes to burn out and feeling isolated or alone.
On a positive note, the culture surrounding first responders has been changing. In the past, many first responders would not seek mental health treatment due to the strong stigma of being considered “weak” if they seek out help to treat their trauma, or even talk to someone about what they have witnessed. In the past, many first responders were told to “suck it up” when faced with emotional hardship as it is just part of the job they signed up for. Fortunately, we are moving toward a more accepting world in which first responders feel more comfortable seeking treatment due to trusting mental health providers. Mental health providers have a natural ability to create a calm, open, and nonjudgmental environment for clients to share in. This is especially important for first responders. Many first responders may feel judged or untrustworthy toward a mental health provider as they are an “outsider” looking into their world. This trust is built on mental health providers becoming more educated about the life and culture of a first responder, and truly understanding why first responders partake in this line of work.
First responders benefit from mental health treatment as it gives them the opportunity to process what they have witnessed, as well as learn about how trauma affects their work, family life, health, and overall well-being. Mental health providers can provide first responders with the tools they need to process and cope with their trauma. In doing so, they become more knowledgeable regarding burnout and the importance of self-care to improve their mental health, allowing them to do their job to the best of their ability. Recently, more first responders are seeking treatment but sometimes lack encouragement and support. Encouraging a first responder to seek therapy and normalizing the need for treatment is extremely important. Support is the first step a first responder needs, leading to the confidence to seek treatment and improve their mental health and overall well-being.