First Responders and Mental Health

By Asa Don Brown Ph.D – Psychology Today


As a community, first responders have an invisible integrity that they believe differentiates them from the general public. In the community of first responders, there have been countless lives lost to suicide over the past few months. The most prevalent feature of a number of the first responder suicides is an underlying mental health issue often related to traumatic stress.

In the summer of 2009, Tim McLean, a 22-year-old passenger on a Greyhound bus traveling near Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, Canada, was unexpectedly and violently stabbed to death by a fellow passenger: Vince Li. Eventually, the courts would find Mr. Li not guilty nor “criminally responsible” due to evidence of mental illness. In the years to come, the experiences from that grave event would take a toll on the life of the responding RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) Constable Ken Barker. In the summer of 2014, Constable Barker would tragically take his own life. The presiding evidence has convinced many of his fellow officers that there was a direct relationship between his suicide and the events of 2009.

There is ample evidence to suggest that many first responders deny or resist seeking mental healthcare due to the longstanding stigmatization. Research literature suggest that for many, there is an underlying fear of being subjected to ridicule, prejudice, discrimination, and labeling. Sadly, the truth is that these issues are often perpetuated by those who lack a clear understanding of mental healthcare and mental illness.

The community of first responders are very critical of the stigmatization of mental healthcare, and much less the labeling of a mental illness. Therefore, the stigmatization alone has created a boundary between the first responders and the need for mental healthcare.

BATTLING A CULTURE OF STIGMATIZATION AND DISCRIMINATION

In February 2017, an Australian Police Officer committed suicide with no real indicator or significant decree behind her suicide. As with many law enforcement and first responder agencies, the Australian government has been pushing for a greater awareness for mental healthcare, but has often left it to the discretion of the first responder agency or department. While many are beginning to speak “out about the stigma that prevents first responders and police from speaking about their mental illness;” (Treadwell, 2017, Online)  the stigma continues to plague the community of first responders.

As a global community, we are beginning to recognize that there must be a greater sense of urgency among the community of first responders. Our first responders are in critical need of mental healthcare. The stigmatization will remain, not only for those who serve as first responders, but the community at large, until we make mental healthcare and mental illness a safe and acceptable topic. While the stigmatization may have a different effect on those that serve as a first responders; the nature of the stigma remains the same. After all, the stigmatization is about placing a barrier between the “perceived normal” and the “perceived abnormal” of society. Ironically, if you were to take any person on the planet, there is no doubt that they could be labeled with psychological characteristics. Every human has his or her own idiosyncrasies that distinguishes them from another. It is not to say that they would have a profound psychological diagnosis, but the truth is, everyone has some psychological characteristics or features within their personality.

The nature of stigmatizing is to separate “us” from “them” and is a source of pride for many within the first responder community. There is not only a sense of pride, but a deeply ingrained fear that prevents many from seeking care. For many, the stigmatization has created a deep divide between the need for self-care and the willingness to seek care.

The Tragic and Preventable Loss of Life

In 2016, The Badge of Life, a Police Suicide Prevention Program, revealed that nearly 108 law enforcement officers took their own lives. According to the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, an estimated 113 firefighters and paramedics took their own lives in 2015. While the numbers may not seem relatively high; any loss is a tragic and preventable loss. “The numbers, however, could be much higher because there is no official database tracking suicide by firefighters and paramedics. Very few fire departments report these incidents, and very few first responders ask for help—a product of a culture that stigmatizes showing any type of weakness, whether physical or mental.” (Bah, 2016, Online)

THE IMMEDIACY OF CARE

The immediacy of care is essential to begin the process of recovery. In the summer of 2015, Tim Casey, a 31-year veteran firefighter with the Colorado Springs Fire Department, began posting videos on Youtube. Mr. Casey’s video posts would describe the various and countless tragic events that he had encountered over his 31 years of service.