It’s a strange one, isn’t it? When you think of your role as a First Responder, it’s physical health that probably springs to mind as whether you’re a firefighter, police officer or EMT, these are the calls that get you kitted-out and blue lighting your way through the busy streets of America. Yet take a step back and think about the very real – very serious effects – the nature of the job takes on your own mental health.
First Responder Mental Health Statistics and Causes
So, what exactly is going on?
It doesn’t help that the image – quite rightly – appropriated to First Responders is that of stoic public servants, embodying the popular hashtag #notallheroeswearcapes.
But it certainly comes at a cost. For even the bravest of those willing to jump into fires, get in the line of gunshot or deal with the bloodiest of wounds is not infallible, and being repeatedly exposed to such traumatic conditions (be they earthquakes, hurricanes or terrorist attacks) leaves a heavy mark on the mind – especially when a life is not saved. Throw into the mix a lack of sleep (read more about that here), a separation from family and a macho culture – leading to a misplaced notion of stigma through a fear of ridicule, prejudice and discrimination - and you have a whole family of First Responders who are responding to the needs of others but letting their own needs fall by the waste side.
It’s difficult to know where to begin when reporting First Responder mental health statistics as it seems new data is being released each day. But here are a few stand-out statistics:
- First Responder depression is real, with 13% suffering in some way. Twenty-six percent display signs of PTSD and 25% are at high risk for suicide (figures by Professor Sarah Jones at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences)
- 70% of firefighters have trouble sleeping, while over 50% of firefighter deaths are due to stress and exhaustion, according to a 2012 literature review
- 37% of emergency medical service providers have contemplated suicide and 6.6% have made an actual attempt (figures by JEMS - the Journal of Emergency Medical Services) – nearly 10 times the rate of American civilians. Sixty-nine percent feel as if they have never had enough time to recover between traumatic events (Bentley et al., 2013)
- Around 75% of police officers have reported experiencing a traumatic event but less than half of them told their agency about it (Fleischmann et al., 2016), while an estimated 125 and 300 police officers commit suicide every year (Badge of Life, 2016 – a police suicide prevention program)
What’s even more concerning is that all these figures could be much higher since there is no official database tracking these incidents.
First Responder Mental Health Symptoms
So, what are the signs to look out for to determine whether you – or a loved one – are suffering from a breakdown in mental health?
Where it all begins, First Responders may experience physical, cognitive, emotional or behavioral symptoms of stress. Some may occur immediately, while others might only present themselves much later (PTSD).
Physical symptoms that of stress that may be affecting you:
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Dilated pupils and problems with eyesight
- Extreme fatigue
- Headaches and other pains
Cognitive symptoms of stress can include the following:
- Confusion and disorientation
- Poor problem solving
- Memory problems
Emotional symptoms of a Mental Health breakdown include:
- Feeling of failure
Behavioral symptoms include:
- Loss or increase of appetite
- Substance abuse, such as alcohol or drugs
- Poor self-care
Strategies for keeping a healthy mental attitude as a First Responder
Looking at it like this, it can seem completely overwhelming. Fortunately, there are many coping mechanisms available:
There are always people who will be willing to help – but you must first be willing to ask for it, breaking down the stigma surrounding First Responder mental health one step at a time.