Emergency responders are the people on the frontlines of every accident, crisis and disaster. But over time — and especially in recent years — being subjected to these stressful, traumatic situations can cause burnout and negatively affect their mental health.
Without these selfless people, society would have nobody to count on in times of need, so the privilege of emergency care comes at a cost: preserving the mental health of first responders.
Suicide and Depression in Emergency Responders
It’s easy to become overwhelmed and drained by the constant cycle of being exposed to traumatic situations. The nature of the work puts a great amount of stress on the minds and the bodies of responders — with severe results.
Even before the COVID-19 crisis, a study found that suicide takes the lives of more first responders than the dangerous situations they face every day, and this figure may be severely underreported — for example, only 40 percent of firefighters’ suicide deaths are reported. According to The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 30 percent of first responders develop behavioral health conditions, compared comparison to 20 percent of the general population.
Monitoring for symptoms
The first step to reducing the magnitude of these statistics is recognizing the signs of a mental health disorder — and frequently, this is up to a loved one or coworker. Addressing concerning behavior before higher levels of severity are reached is a key component of helping a suffering first responder. EMS1, an online resource community for EMS personnel, has generated a list of need-to-know tips to help save the lives of first responders.
- First responders must know the difference between stress and chronic stress. Stress is a normal part of life that everyone must deal with, but chronic stress can have serious, negative effects on a person’s body.
- Responders acknowledging the high likelihood of them experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or having suicidal thoughts is a step in the right direction. Recognizing that they may have a predisposition to these mental illnesses gives emergency responders a better chance to address the issues before the severity increases.
- Responders and their loved ones should be educated on the signs that someone is in a mental health crisis. Factors in a first responder’s personal life, such as divorce or death of a family member, can lead to an increase in these symptoms. SAMHSA developed a list of warning signs to help with the recognition of a person experiencing emotional distress.
Tips for First Responders
Emergency responders are always thinking of the next person they can help but neglecting to find time for themselves can lead to poor mental health. As the saying goes, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.”
The Center for Disease Control offers this advice for first responders looking to keep their mental health in check.
- Talk to family and friends about your feelings and experiences. These traumatic events can be heavy to hold without sharing feelings.
- Practice setting appropriate boundaries. Know when to say “no,” and try to put your needs first.
- Take the time to prepare healthy meals and snacks to have between calls. Repetitively eating fast food may be convenient but will leave you feeling burnt out and lethargic.
- Find someone in your department to “buddy-up” with. Hold each other accountable and rely on each other in times of need.
- Remind yourself that overworking is not a guarantee of your best contributions to the emergency responses. Try to limit yourself to no more than 12-hour shifts.
Below is a list of trusted resources to seek if you or a first responder you know is experiencing deteriorating mental health.
- The National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
- First Responder Peer Support Hotline: 1-267-893-5400
- National Safe Call Now: 1-206-459-3020
- Shield Resilience Training Course for Law Enforcement
- Mental Health First Aid for Fire and EMS