Samantha Dutton, PhD, MSW, of the University of Phoenix, spoke on a recent study conducted by the university which surveyed first responders on their experiences with mental health issues.
“Some of the more pertinent findings were that 85% of the first responders had experienced symptoms related to mental health issues,” says Dutton. “One third of them were formally diagnosed with either depression or PTSD. Half of them had received pre-exposure training and another half had received follow-up care after the traumatic event.”
Dutton says she worries about the other half of first responders who are not receiving treatment or pre-exposure training. She believes one reason for this may be due to smaller agencies simply not having treatment resources available or lacking the funds to provide those resources.
“It’s important that employers make those resources available to first responders and to combat the atmosphere of the stigma that is attached to it,” says Dutton. “An atmosphere of support and acceptance makes it more commonplace to have a discussion about what’s going on in the workplace.”
Dutton says leaders in EMS must make conversations about mental health more open to allow staff to feel comfortable discussing the topic.
“If you break your leg, you go to your doctor and get it fixed, but we never speak about mental health in the same tone or openness,” says Dutton. “Getting to that point would be a wonderful place to be. Leadership can definitely put them on a track for that by making it an easier conversation.”
Dutton also recommends that EMS leaders discuss mental health during their regular staff meetings to normalize the topic.
“Let mental health be part of the conversation, because until you talk about it and bring that issue out of the dark, it still remains with that stigma,” Dutton says.
However, even if the resources are available to first responders, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will utilize them. Dutton says there is a very strong stigma attached to seeking help in the EMS community.
“They’re the people who we call to help us in our time of need, so if they have to get help, what does that say about them? This is what they’re thinking,” says Dutton. “People may think that they’re not good enough or healthy enough to do the job, when really, if you don’t get the help early on, that’s the time that it will impact your job.”
Angela Heisel, Communications Manager of the Social Sciences programs within the College of Humanities & Sciences at University of Phoenix, says another reason why first responders don’t seek help is the fear of consequences in the workplace.
“There were perceived repercussions that we identified,” says Heisel. “Some were thinking they will be treated differently by their supervisors, or be perceived as weak by their colleagues. They also felt that they would be looked over for promotion if they sought help.”
Dutton and Heisel stress that it is imperative that help is sought out as soon as possible. Dutton discusses ways in which first responders can find the help they need.
“One of the things that I think would be helpful in the agencies are peer support models, where you can go to a peer and talk to them about what’s going on and they can direct you to proper agencies that can handle what’s happening,” says Dutton. “There’s most likely mental health clinics within every community in America.”
She also suggests psychoeducational care, which is a more informal method of counseling.
“You’re just having a conversation with someone who is experienced and who has a license in it,” Dutton says. “They can tell you whether you need to get a certain kind of help. There’s no real diagnosing happening, so it’s not on your medical report. It’s easier to make that transition when people are exposed to what they could be getting from a mental health provider.”
The ultimate concern for people not receiving treatment is the potential that their worsening mental health could lead to suicidal thoughts.
“Suicide is the terminal illness within mental illness,” says Dutton. “It’s really important to just ask the question, ‘Are you thinking of hurting yourself?’ You’re not going to give them the idea to do it. That’s a myth. If they want to hurt themselves, they’ve already had the idea. Reaching out to them is not going to give them the idea.”
Dutton says it’s important to recognize the signs of depression or suicidal thoughts, including:
Withdrawing from family and friends;
Not attending social events;
Drinking excessively or starting to drink alcohol;
Not eating or not eating well;
Becoming angry or frustrated for no reason;
“When you see that in yourself or in other people, that’s the time to reach out. Or if it’s you, reach out for the help of a peer support, or a mental health provider. You want to go when it first starts happening because that’s when it’s easier to treat.”
Dutton feels it’s important to educate the public on mental health and make everyone more aware of the issues involved with it.
“We rely on first responders to show up at our greatest time of need. We want them to be happy, healthy, ready to help us,” says Dutton. “We want them the best they can be, and in order for that to happen, we need to address these issues surrounding mental health and the stigma surrounding it.”