Being a first responder means being part of a team and looking out for each other’s physical and mental health. First responders sacrifice much of themselves when they are on the front lines, responding to stressful and traumatic events regularly. There is an unfortunate stigma around first responders and mental health. They are expected to be the rocks on which people can lean, disregarding their mental health in the process. This can lead to disastrous results, including the development of a mental health disorder, unhealthy coping methods, and even self-harm and suicide.
It’s not only important to be aware of a fellow first responder’s mental health but also to dismantle the general stigma around getting help. Just because someone is a first responder, it doesn’t mean they never need help. They are human, just like any of us, and we all need help once in a while. If you are a first responder yourself, you must learn to recognize the warning signs of when someone needs help, as well as what to do to encourage someone to seek it.
Why Mental Health Is Critical to a First Responder
First responders deal with stress and trauma as part of their duty. To do their jobs and save lives, the first responder must be on top of their game. This not only means being physically fit and well but also being mentally sound. Maintaining both is much easier said than done. Mental health, in general, is rarely spoken about in society, so many people never learn the skills they need to cope with negative events and feelings. Sometimes someone may try to cope using unhealthy methods, such as self-medicating. This is not healthy and can cause great harm not only to the individual but to society as a whole.
When we look at first responders, we see role models in how we wish to act and conduct ourselves. Many people wish they were as selfless and brave as a first responder. However, when we see their mental health being disregarded, it can affect the society around us. Disregarding mental health has unfortunately become normalized. Changing how our society views mental health will take time and effort. We must change how we see and react to mental health, especially when it comes to first responders, to have a healthier society.
The Common Signs of a First Responder in Trouble
When being around fellow first responders, either on or off duty, you must be aware of some common signs that someone needs help for their mental health. Some of these signs can be subtle and easy to overlook. However, they can quickly escalate in severity if not caught and treated right away.
Starting or Increasing Substance Use
Many people will often try to cope with negative feelings by consuming alcohol or drugs. It especially becomes a problem when these substances impair someone’s ability to function or negatively affect someone’s health.
Displaying Signs of Anxiety or Depression
If someone begins to talk about life being hopeless, seems particularly anxious, or withdraws from people entirely, they may be struggling mentally. Depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are common ailments that affect first responders. Be aware of the symptoms of either, especially if they persist for more than two weeks.
Thinking About or Attempting Self-Harm or Suicide
Suicide, in particular, is disproportionately higher among first responders than the rest of the population. If someone begins to harm themselves or begins to talk about death or dying, they need immediate help.
Difficulties Concentrating or Making Decisions
First responders have to be quick on their feet. If someone has trouble concentrating on a task or making fast decisions, they may be struggling with their mental health.
Irregularity of Emotions
When someone is struggling with their mental health, they may have difficulty regulating their emotions. This can cause an increase in irritability, loss of temper, of feelings of depression. So if someone’s usual mood suddenly changes, it’s a cause for concern.
When you notice someone displaying these symptoms, it’s time to take them aside and speak to them about their mental health.
How to Encourage a First Responder to Seek Help for Their Mental Health
The best thing to do when encouraging someone to seek help is to offer non-judgmental support. A person doesn’t need to be judged on why they feel a certain way. Instead, they need to know that someone cares about them and wants them to be healthy.
Ask someone how they are feeling, and listen when they talk to you. They need to feel as though their matter and that how they feel is valid. Let them know that you care about them, and offer to help them reach out for help. Sometimes someone needs support in making that first phone call, and you can certainly be there for them.
Calling your local mental healthcare facility to speak with a mental healthcare professional is also helpful. They can uniquely give you the advice and resources you need to help someone find the help they need. Sometimes they may have access to programs in your area specifically designed to help first responders. They can also answer questions you may have about mental health in general.
Remember that it’s tough to break free of stigma. Reassure the person you are helping that they are brave and that there is no shame in asking for help. You don’t judge a person for needing to be rescued, so why should you judge yourself for needing the same help? Everyone deserves to have their problems acknowledged and cared for, including yourself and the ones you love.
First responders give up their time, energy, and skills to help those who cannot help themselves. Sometimes they even give up their mental health. They struggle in silence, afraid to seek help in case of judgment or stigma. If you know someone who is a first responder or a first responder yourself, it’s critical to encourage them to seek help. Acera Health, located in Costa Mesa, California, helps first responders get the help they need when they need it. Everyone deserves compassionate and quality care for their mental health. If you need help with your mental health or advice on how to encourage someone else to seek help, call (949) 647-4090 today.
Melody is a highly skilled proactive clinical administrator, with more than 17 years of experience serving the community in the behavioral health field.
Her clinical management career started in 2011 as a compliance manager and program director. In 2018, she became an executive as chief clinical officer (CCO). She is a seasoned licensed marriage & family therapist.