First responders facing mental health challenges should know ‘it’s OK to seek help’
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Editor’s note: This is the final story of a four-part series where eastern Idahoans share their knowledge and experiences with mental illnesses, in hopes that other people in similar circumstances can get the help they need. Part one was about a teenager who tried to end her own life, part two dealt with a family whose son died by suicide, and part three focused on children’s mental health.
IDAHO FALLS — First responders put their lives on the line daily to protect other people, but their sacrifices come with a price.
A study by the Ruderman Family Foundation, an organization that examines the role between law enforcement and the disabled, found that policemen and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.
The same study reports that post-traumatic stress disorder and depression rates have been found to be as much as five times higher among policemen and firefighters than the general public.
This article focuses on mental health when it comes to law enforcement, firefighters and other emergency responders.
The life of a first responder
Bonneville County Sheriff Capt. Sam Hulse said first responders experience almost daily, somethings that most individuals will only experience a few times in their life.
“We may respond in any given day to multiple death scenes where people have passed away for a variety of reasons, or we may see the untimely death of children or people that were in their prime of life,” he said. “As first responders, we deal with that all the time.”
Idaho Falls Police Chief Bryce Johnson said the constant unknown of what the next call will bring can impact first responders’ mental health.
“There’s a requirement to remain vigilant and prepare for whatever may come, and that state of constant vigilance is a stress state,” he said. “That stress state really never subsides. It follows us everywhere we go.”
That hypervigilance doesn’t go away when Johnson’s off duty. When he goes to a restaurant with his wife, and as his vehicle gets close to the parking lot, he prepares to quickly take his seat belt off. It’s a habit he’s developed over the years in law enforcement, so he’s ready to get out of a patrol vehicle immediately.
Being ready at a moment’s notice to respond to a tragic scene is how first responders describe a “normal” workday.
“We usually don’t get called when things are going well. We get called when things are out of control, the situation is dire, or there’s abuse in a family or something like that going on,” Hulse said. “We consistently see things that aren’t good, and that has a cumulative effect on us as individuals.”
Idaho Falls Fire Chief Duane Nelson said stress can be a good thing because it can create motivation, and the fight-or-flight mechanism can kick in. Nelson said that motivation is why firefighters often run into fires or toward the problem without hesitation.
“But as that adrenaline wears off, all of those things that are being done compound,” Nelson said. “So it is a challenge for fire and EMS personnel specifically, and all public safety, of how do they minimize that? Or how do they let it go afterward? How do they relieve that stress and not let (it) affect them?”
The stigma with first responders seeking mental health help
Hulse, Johnson and Nelson agree that there’s a stigma when it comes to first responders seeking mental health assistance because first responders are traditionally seen as people who give help, not receive it.
“When I started into this business, (seeking help) was frowned upon,” Hulse said. “It was seen as a weakness if you went and (talked to somebody).”
In a 2017 nationwide survey of 2,000 adults who were employed as firefighters, police officers, EMT/paramedics and nurses, the University of Phoenix found that 85% of first responders have experienced symptoms related to mental health issues.
Thirty-nine percent of those first responders said there are negative repercussions for seeking mental health help at work, such as their supervisor treating them differently, their co-workers perceiving them as “weak” and being looked over for promotions.
Sabas Flores III was an officer with the Idaho Falls Police Department and was a member of the department’s SWAT team for several years. At the age of 41, he took his life by suicide.
His wife, April Griffiths Thomas, told EastIdahoNews.com in 2019 that there’s a stigma with police officers and mental health.
“They’re expected to deal with the kinds of things they do, bury it deep down and go onto the next call,” Thomas said in an article previously published on EastIdahoNews.com. “There’s no dealing with the long-term ramifications of what you just saw.”
Johnson said 10 years ago, he would never have talked to a counselor and sought help. But after losing five of his friends to suicide, one friend who was murdered by violent assault, one who was killed on duty trying to do traffic control and another who had a heart attack on duty, his outlook has changed.
“I (would’ve said), ‘I don’t need it. Not going to happen. I’m not weak. I’m strong. Talking to a counselor will show weakness, and I’m not weak,'” he said. “My opinions changed in the last decade.”
Nelson believes the stigma is diminishing. Similar to law enforcement, he said it’s become more of a subject and open dialogue in the firefighting profession.
“Mental health and stress have become a big thing in the fire service as of late, over the last really, probably five to 10 years it’s really become a thing that has been talked about with the international fire chiefs and the Professional Firefighters Association really getting involved at the international level and then down through the states,” Nelson said.
Breaking the stigma of “I’m here to help; I don’t need help” starts at the top of organizations and being able to identify if someone is struggling and then talk about it, Nelson said. He believes that’s what has helped his department.
“It takes time to change that attitude (of not needing help),” Nelson said.
Other contributing factors
On top of responding to emergencies, there are other factors that can contribute to a decrease in mental health, such as irregular shifts, not eating healthy, lack of exercise and a first responder’s personal life. Hulse said one’s family can be a great support and strength, but it can also drain gas from the tank.
“All those things accumulate, and it’s kind of that slow boil. It doesn’t break all at once — it sneaks up on you,” Hulse said.
To help alleviate the stress and stay physically fit, Nelson said every fire station has a gym inside.
“That’s that balance of being well, both mentally and physically,” Nelson added.
Johnson said administrative officer relationships and negative reactions from the public regarding first responders can impact their mental health too.
“This environment is incredibly stress-inducing in addition to everything else,” Johnson said.
‘It’s OK to seek help’
First responders are expected to have their emotions under control when they’re at a scene, but Hulse said it’s appropriate at the right time and place to seek mental health help.
“Over the course of a career, that’s how you survive this profession. You have to have a place where you can talk productively about those things, where you can feel safe and you can share the fact that you are at the same time a person, and dealing with these things affects you,” Hulse said. “We know based on the science now that talking about it helps us process those emotions, so it’s important that we’re able to do that.”
Between the police department, fire department and sheriff’s office, there are several mental health tools available to first responders.
Some of those tools include critical incident stress debriefings that are usually run by somebody who’s trained to walk people through steps of dealing with stress after traumatic events. There are also after-action reports where first responders talk about what happened on a call, what they can do better and what went right.
IFPD has counselors from a local counseling clinic do ride alongs with officers so the officers can start to build a trusting relationship with them. They can talk to those counselors at their office, or a few times a year, IFPD will also bring the counselors in and have open counseling days where officers and dispatchers can meet with them then.
Along with the organizations encouraging counseling, trust teams have been implemented where a group of employees receives specialized training on recognizing signs of stress and learning how to help each other out.
“We will always be there in somebody’s time of need, and (we’re) making sure that everything’s in place for our personnel at the same time for when they need the call for help, it’s there,” Nelson said.