“He swore that oath to protect and serve
Pours his heart and soul into both those words
Lays his life on the line
The line he walks is razor fine
Tempered strength is always tough
But he ain’t gonna buckle
Under the weight of the badge”
-George Strait, Weight of the Badge
In a song that celebrates the dedication and hard work of law enforcement officers, George Strait describes an officer’s commitment to his community and the impact his career has on his personal safety. In the song, Strait sings, “It doesn’t weigh a lot until you put it on, and the weight of it is staggering.”
Most communities are deeply aware of the sacrifice first responders make daily. Not only do first responders give up time with family and a significant measure of personal safety, but many also sacrifice their mental health for the job. While most people shy away from violence, tumultuous domestic situations and trauma, police officers, emergency medical service providers, and firefighters willingly put themselves on the frontline for the sake of their communities.
Being a first responder isn’t a role that’s suitable for everyone. Those who choose this field are passionate about their work, but they’re bombarded with stressors that most people on the outside are unable to understand. Experiencing trauma second-hand and even being the target of violence at times has a significant impact on mental health.
All In a Day’s Work: Daily Traumas that Affect Mental Health
EMTs and paramedics are usually the first ones on site in the event of a medical emergency, meaning they’re regularly exposed to hazardous situations. Without proper precautions, they may be exposed to bloodborne pathogens and contagious diseases. Their job may involve heavy lifting, which can lead to serious injuries.
Similarly, law enforcement officers regularly walk into situations where emotions may be running high and people may act unpredictably. Even something as routine as a traffic stop can turn into a dangerous situation. The rate of firefighters who get hurt on the job is also relatively high, with many experiencing injuries from muscle strain, smoke inhalation, lacerations, and burns.
Although first responders are highly trained, it’s impossible to predict every outcome and accommodate every potential danger. Accidents and oversights happen, resulting in increased risks to personal safety. Long hours, poor sleep quality, and mental strain can impact mental health.
Working as a first responder often means putting in long hours. Many EMTs and paramedics are on-call around the clock, and firefighters often work 24-hour shifts. Police officers typically work a full-time schedule that includes 9- to 12-hour shifts. In environments where schedules are based on seniority, rookies may work a lot of overnight and weekend shifts.
Unsurprisingly, working this type of schedule can be disruptive to the individual’s personal life. The unpredictability can make it hard to keep social commitments, attend school or family functions or decompress after a particularly stressful shift. It can also take a toll on personal relationships when responders have to account for frequent absences or explain why they sometimes feel distracted or disengaged.
Working long shifts or working during odd times makes it impossible for many first responders to maintain a normal sleep schedule. Many rely on caffeine to get through tough shifts. Even when they should catch up on sleep during the day, social responsibilities, household tasks and even light and noise can make getting that sleep difficult. On top of that, the physical and psychological stressors responders regularly face can cause serious mental stress that makes it challenging to relax and fall asleep. Combined, these factors result in poor sleep that can worsen mental health.
First responders are exposed to circumstances in which trauma, injuries, illnesses and death are commonplace. While most people rarely experience these types of situations, police officers, firefighters, EMTs and paramedics walk into them on a daily basis.
Not only are first responders regularly exposed to dangerous and highly charged situations, but they must be able to act effectively in these situations. This requires being able to recognize potential hazards and quickly make judgment calls that could save or lose a life.
Constantly being on high alert, witnessing life-threatening situations, and worrying about making the wrong call take a serious toll on first responders’ mental health. While they go through stringent training to help them manage the physical demands of the job, comparatively little preparation and guidance are available to help them navigate the psychological tolls this regular exposure to stress and trauma takes.
First Responders and PTSD Symptoms
According to one study, about four out of five first responders experience traumatic events while on the job, putting them at high risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder. In fact, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration states that about one in three first responders develop PTSD. By comparison, about one in five people in the general population develop this condition.
One study indicated that PTSD is present in:
- 15 percent of paramedics
- 13 percent of rescue teams
- 7 percent of firefighters
- 5 percent of police officers
The symptoms of PTSD, which include being easily startled, self-destructive behaviors, trouble concentrating, and difficulty sleeping can make it hard for first responders to do their jobs. It can also lead to other mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts.
Coping with Job-Related Stress
Unfortunately, the fast-paced, unrelenting nature of the job combined with the physical and psychological toll it takes make it difficult for many first responders to find healthy ways for managing stress. As a result, many use alcohol to deal with stress, unwind from particularly traumatic situations, and promote social interactions. Using alcohol in this way puts first responders at an increased risk of developing a substance use disorder. In fact, about half of male firefighters reported binge or heavy drinking in the last month, indicating that alcohol abuse is more prevalent among first responders than among those in the general population.
The good news is that more resources are available to first responders than ever before. The SAMHSA publishes helpful information for first responders, including stress management strategies, online trainings and resources for preparing for and recovering from disasters. It also operates the Disaster Distress Helpline, which is a national helpline that’s available 24/7, 365 days per year, to provide immediate crisis counseling for anyone experiencing emotional distress from any disaster. The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is also a valuable resource for first responders. Additionally, there are often local resources for first responders available through their employer or the health department.
It’s not always realistic or even possible to eliminate work-related stressors, but accessing resources can help first responders maintain their effectiveness while getting the mental health support they need.
How Mental Health Issues Affect First Responders
Left untreated, mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD can have a serious impact on first responders. Professionally, it may impact their ability to make quick, well-informed decisions. This could jeopardize their own safety or cause them to make poor judgment calls in a high-stress situation. It can also strain their relationships with their peers and supervisors, further creating a stressful environment.
On a personal level, unresolved mental issues can impact things like sleep, relationships with friends and family, eating habits, and recreational drug or alcohol use. According to statistics, about seven out of 10 EMS professionals don’t have enough time to recover from traumatic events before having to face another, increasing the likelihood of them experiencing mental health problems.
How to Reach Out for Health as a First Responder
Mental health issues rarely resolve on their own, especially if the environmental factors that cause them don’t change. For that reason, it’s important for first responders to get the professional help they need to cope with on-the-job stress and trauma, as well as the stress that comes from their job’s impact on their personal life.
FHE’s Shatterproof program is specifically for first responders. This program offers a unique understanding of the dynamics first responders face and provides specialized treatment with a discrete and confidential admissions process. It also works with unions to ensure first responders’ jobs are protected. To get more information on this program, contact us today.