When your job is to respond to emergencies and help protect and save lives, it can be hard to ask for help. Being on call for yourself may seem counter-intuitive. Sometimes, though, taking care of a mental health issue is the best way to get back to work for your family and community—and for you. We invite you to learn more about the Shatterproof program at FHE Health and how it is addressing the unique addiction and mental health treatment needs of first responders around the country….
Mental Health Stigma Among First Responders
Mental health issues are common medical conditions in this country: They affect roughly one in five adults and one in three first responders in a given year. Even so, the stigma surrounding mental illness can prevent people from seeking help.
That same stigma can be an even bigger deterrent for first responders:
- First responders are the first to know that working in their field is tough. Many therefore believe that it’s part of their job to be “tough” and to save and protect others in dangerous situations.
- For many first responders, mental illness symptoms like anxiety and depression are not indicative of the toughness they’ve come to associate with their occupations.
- Many worry that by seeking help, they will be labeled as having a weak mind or as being less reliable than someone without a mental health condition.
Of course, the medical community is doing its best to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness. It doesn’t make sense to hide a condition like depression that many people will experience in their lives. Illness, mental or physical, is not indicative of weakness or strength. It’s a condition that develops as any sickness might. Chronic stress and acute stress can take a toll on the brain. When this happens, the best thing that a person can do is discuss their symptoms with their medical provider so that they can get the help they need to manage or even eliminate those symptoms.
The stigma of mental illness, however, often prevents first responders from seeking that help. By failing to seek help, many first responders will experience a worsening of their symptoms that affects their quality of life and can reduce their work performance. Others may seek unhealthy ways of coping, such as self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, which only deepens the problem.
Perceived Barriers to Mental Health Treatment
Stigma is one of a number of perceived barriers to mental health treatment in the first responder population. Many are concerned they could be labeled because of their mental illness and then passed over for promotions. Some even fear that their job will be threatened. When someone is in the throes of a mental illness, these perceived threats can take on an even more menacing shape.
Another perceived barrier is limited insurance coverage. It’s not uncommon to be worried that an existing medical insurance plan won’t cover mental healthcare needs. First responders may also fear the expense associated with seeing a therapist and/or psychiatrist on a routine basis.
These perceived barriers can convince many first responders to avoid or delay treatment, but it’s critically important to remember that mental health care is medical healthcare and that insurers include mental health coverage in their plans today. Also, employers know the statistics. They also know how crucial it is to support their team. Their employees are assets. Sometimes their assets get sick–either with a physical ailment or with a mental illness like depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Employers also know that these conditions can be successfully managed—with treatment. Employees who proactively seek treatment and manage their condition before it can worsen demonstrate a healthy response to a medical issue. If you’re a first responder and have any or all of the above concerns about treatment, talk to your doctor. Ask for more information and guidance, so you can make the right decision for your needs.
First Responders’ Unique Mental Health Needs
First responders heroically serve our country every day. By being the first to arrive on the scene of crises, disasters, emergencies, wars, and other violent events, they suffer disproportionately from exposure to trauma and trauma-related stress and other mental health effects. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) has reported that roughly one in three (30 percent) of first responders—namely, police officers, fire fighters and emergency medical services (EMS) personnel—develop a behavioral health condition like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of their job.
PTSD in first responders is especially common because of the nature of their work. Just one traumatic event alone is enough to cause symptoms of PTSD, but a daily inundation of danger and tragedy? That, only naturally, is much more likely to trigger the condition, which is characterized by these signs and symptoms:
- Emotional numbness
- High reactivity to certain situations
- Avoidance of people, places or things that remind you of the trauma
- Sleep problems
- Alcohol, drug and/or food problems
- Flashbacks, nightmares and recurring thoughts
- A loss of interest in things that once gave you pleasure
Why First Responders Need Treatment
The same SAMHSA report about first responder mental health needs notes other disconcerting statistics that illustrate why emergency responders need high-quality treatment that is personalized to their needs— and, sufficient job-protected time away from work for rehab:
- Because of the frenetic pace of their work, 69 percent of EMS professionals have never had enough time to recover between traumatic events and therefore are more likely to experience post-traumatic stress and other negative mental health symptoms, according to one study.
- Approximately 50 percent of male firefighters reported heavy or binge drinking in the last month, suggesting that substance problems occur at significantly higher rates among first responders.
With respect to suicide and suicidality, firefighters suffered from higher attempt and ideation rates than the general population, and in law enforcement, the estimates suggest between 125 and 300 police officers commit suicide every year.
Specialized Treatment for First Responders – What It Is
If left untreated, these mental health issues for first responders can progressively worsen. For example, in the wake of a particularly traumatic accident, or a situation in which the first responder regrets they didn’t act differently, their guilt may contribute to clinical depression. Out of fear of losing his job or not carrying his fair share of the work, or because of a lack of understanding about his condition and the treatments for it, he may continue to work at the same pace, absorbing more on-the-job stress and trauma without attending to his underlying depression. He may then begin to self-medicate his depression by binge drinking—which in turn leads to an alcohol use disorder. The co-occurring depression and alcohol abuse will now require a higher, more intensive level of care such as inpatient treatment. By contrast, with more immediate intervention, the problem could have been successfully treated in an outpatient capacity when the presenting issue was depression only.
How Treatment Can Help you
If you’re a first responder with PTSD, depression and/or a co-occurring substance use disorder—whatever the mental health condition—you need to know that recovery is possible when you prioritize your health and pursue high-quality care. A trusted first responder mental health program, one that tailors its treatment interventions to your specialized needs, will maximize your prospects of a full and permanent recovery.
Not every facility has a first responder mental health program. Those that do may or may not tailor their treatments to first responders’ individual needs. Truly specialized treatment programs for first responders align their therapeutic interventions with the unique culture, code, and values of first responders, as well as the unique nature of emergency responders’ stressors and experiences. These distinctive factors mean first responders also have their own unique mental, emotional and behavioral symptoms and triggers, which are best processed with a first responder therapist (someone whose expertise is assisting this demographic).
Shatterproof @ FHE
Shatterproof at FHE (formerly Florida House Shatterproof) employs evidence-based therapies, innovative medical care, and a comprehensive wellness program. These focus on symptoms of PTSD, among other mental health conditions, in order to help our first responders successfully manage their condition and/or achieve life-long recovery from drugs and alcohol.
Shatterproof is designed to help first responders overcome specific obstacles and increase their ability to manage emotions during stressful situations without turning to self-medication. Our medical team works to customize a care plan tailored to the underlying issues that contribute to substance use disorders. Patients in the program also meet with therapists whose experience is specialized to meet their treatment needs.
Our evidence-based, holistic treatment approach addresses every individual’s physical, neurological, mental, social, emotional and spiritual well-being. We also utilize a peer-support group model— to help improve our patients’ outcomes by placing patients together who have similar backgrounds. This allows patients to feel more comfortable, resulting in better outcomes.
Start the admission process
100% free and confidential insurance verification with a counselor
Shatterproof Levels of Care
These treatment approaches are utilized throughout our continuum of care. That continuum consists of these three levels of care, as defined by the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM):
- Level 1: Outpatient Services do not require that a patient live on-site at our facility, although designated housing for first responders is provided. It permits patients to attend to work and home responsibilities while engaging in group and individual therapies. (Ex: the firefighter above who develops depression might best be served by this option in the earlier stages of his depression.)
- Level 2: Intensive Outpatient (IOP) or Partial Hospitalization (PHP) entails significantly more time in group and individual therapies and treatment than do outpatient services, but without the residential requirement.
- Level 3: Residential/Inpatient Services are the highest, most intensive level of care for first responders with more severe and co-occurring mental health conditions. Patients are in supervised care 24/7 while receiving a full, intensive day of group and individual therapies. (Ex: the fire fighter who waits to get help until he has co-occurring depression and alcoholism will be better served at this level of care.)
Following a program of treatment at one of the above levels of care, Shatterproof patients can also enjoy the many benefits of our Alumni and Aftercare Program, including:
- Our strong alumni support system
- Group meetings like those in Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous
- Individual therapy sessions
Unique Features of Shatterproof – Neuro Treatment and a Peer Community of First Responders
“Specialized treatment for first responders” can mean different things at different facilities. Shatterproof is distinguished by a number of unique features, two of which deserve special mention: neuro treatment and a supportive community of fellow first responders.
FHE Health’s innovation in using the latest brain technologies to treat PTSD And other mental health conditions is rare among behavioral health providers nationwide. Shatterproof patients are able to make use of these neurorehabiltative services in conjunction with other therapies. The result is a speedier recovery, so that patients can return to their families and communities as soon as possible.
After their admission to our facility, each patient receives a neuroimaging scan of their brain that identifies areas of dysfunction related to PTSD and other mental health symptoms. When patients are able to see empirical evidence of their illness on a scan, many of them are able to let go of their shame and self-stigmatization: They are able to see and accept that they have a verifiable medical condition. Meanwhile, the brain imaging scans allow us to then therapeutically target impaired areas of the brain with rehabilitative technologies that relieve PTSD symptoms and restore brain health.
A Peer Community of Other First Responders
Research has uncovered the healing importance of belonging for first responders who seek rehab. For example, a study at the University of Buffalo found that veterans have better healthcare outcomes when their providers are familiar with military culture and values. From our own experience, too, when first responders can be part of a supportive community of peers, they feel more comfortable sharing and processing their experiences. They are more quick to be open and vulnerable in therapy, because they know that the others in the room can truly understand what they are going through. This healing power of peer community is another dimension of treatment at FHE Health that we have come to find expedites the recovery process, allowing first responders to return more quickly to their families and roles in public service.
Other Distinctive Benefits of FHE Health’s Shatterproof Program
As dedicated public servants, first responders are often the last to ask for help for themselves. This strong ethic of self-sacrifice can even cause some first responders to think that it is a sign of weakness to ask for help— especially when their problem is mental health-related.
At FHE Health, we understand these dynamics and want to support you every step of the way in getting the specialized treatment you both need and deserve— without endangering your job. To that end, we have created an admissions process that is discrete and confidential, with the guarantee that your employer won’t have to find out.
We also have the ability to work with unions to protect your job, thanks to an in-house expert who works closely with first responder unions.
Help for You
Showing up for other Americans in their time of need and crisis, even if it means putting your own life at risk, is both honorable and heroic. But only a superhero can constantly stand in the line of fire without being mentally and emotionally affected. If you’re struggling with PTSD, addiction or another mental health problem, do the honorable and heroic thing today and show up for yourself, by calling us at 844-299-0618. We’re to help you the rest of the way.