In 2020, first responders were cheered, revered, heckled and jeered. The intensity of the year has brought about change and review of the policies and procedures surrounding first responders. While a majority of the turmoil surrounded those who serve as police officers, firefighters were caught in the middle of this debacle. The pressure of the job and the pressure of society has taken a toll on the lives of many first responders.
First responders are notorious for being reserved about their emotions and emotional wellbeing. Many first responders shy away from sharing their innermost feelings. It is not uncommon for first responders to avoid sharing their innermost feelings in order to protect those that they care about. There is a common thread that weaves throughout the very fabric of every first responder. It is the innate desire to safeguard and protect one’s most intimate of relationships.
While first responders are not necessarily taught or mandated to restrict their emotions, many choose to avoid sharing out of fear of the unknown and the possible consequences and repercussions that could follow. Many of the fears are associated with being perceived as weak. There is a perception that if you share and are known to be struggling with a mental health issue, that you will be passed over for potential promotions. The stigma is so ingrained that it permeates the very essence of those that serve as first responders.
In 2017, the University of Phoenix published a research survey on first-responder mental health. The survey consisted of 2,000 first responders which included firefighters, police officers, EMT/paramedics and nurses. It revealed that there is a high percentage of first responders that live with traumatic experiences. Furthermore, it clarified that many first responders are well aware of their mental health challenges, but there are many who choose to avoid receiving mental health care. The main reason for avoiding mental-health services was directly related to the perceptions and stigmas that plague the field.
The research indicated that nearly 84% of first responders surveyed had been exposed to a traumatic event. For those who reported having been impacted by the traumatic experiences only 34% of those surveyed had sought out therapeutic treatment. The research went on to explain that a majority of first responders were apprehensive in receiving therapeutic care or speaking of a mental health issue on the job. The fears included being passed over for a potential promotion, being perceived as weak, and the fears that their colleagues may judge them or treat them differently.
Despite what has been conveyed through the media, first responders are a group of men and women who have a strong desire to serve and protect the public at large. The past year has caused many first responders to feel apprehensive and at odds with their professional duties.
The year 2020 served as the banner year of attacks on first responders. Regardless of the pandemic and the lockdowns, first responders faced attacks on a global scale. Many of the events and riots that were sparked by George Floyd’s death fuelled an uptick of attacks on the first responder. According to the International Association of Fire Fighters, ‘in cities from Atlanta and Austin to Cleveland and Minneapolis – St. Paul, our members were subjected to having bricks and large fireworks hurled their way, simply for doing their jobs.’
In 2019, firefighters responded to an out-of-control bonfire in Greater Manchester, England. It was reported that the firefighters were viciously attacked by a group of 40 young people. Fortunately, despite the unprovoked attack, none of the crew members were seriously injured.
A similar incident occurred On 5 November 2020, in Merseyside, England, where firefighters and police were called to a scene where individuals were ignoring an order to socially distance. At the scene, firefighters were met with individuals throwing fireworks, threats and being verbally attacked.
There has been a steady rise of attacks on firefighters, police and other first responders. The attacks have been another driving force of fear and concern amongst many who serve. In 2019, there were reported 1,170 attacks on UK firefighters. As the attacks on firefighters continue to climb, the concerns for personal life and safety has risen.
Unlike many professions, firefighters are always on duty. The anticipation of the next call is a constant thought in the back of the mind of the individual. The firefighter’s mind is seldom capable of resting or having a mental health break. On the scene, the firefighter is concerned with the ‘what-if’s’, the unknown and unforeseen scenarios. For many, there is a lingering concern of developing health issues related to the performance of their duties. The general public is unaware of the many obstacles that firefighters and other first responders face day in, day out. In these peerless times, many first responders have developed feelings that it is thankless job.
The life of the first responder is not reflected in many other professional careers. The duties typically entail the potential threat of danger to property, life and public safety. Yet, the first responder voyages forward with his or her call to serve and protect. Nevertheless, the first responder has yielded to seeking out personal care for his or her mental health.
We must rethink the way with which we approach the profession of mental health. The taboos, stigmas and perceptions must be a thing of the past. Given the political unrest, global and economic uncertainty, the general public remains on pins and needles. It is a time that we must be proactive trying not only to prevent harm but also trying to inform those who serve amongst us.
The United States Fire Administration (USFA) explained that those who serve as firefighters are at higher risk of having a heart attack than of many other professions. The ‘physical demands placed on firefighters can be very high and they often have to go from a state of deep sleep to near 100% alertness and high physical exertion in a matter of minutes.’ The USFA went on to explain that those who serve as firefighters have a greater chance of developing health-related issues, which was directly linked to the extreme stress and anxiety of the job.
According to a study by Stanley et al., 2016, firefighters have a higher risk of developing suicidal ideation and being at risk of suicide than the general public. The avoidance of mental health issues only perpetuates the stigma of mental health.
The acceptance for mental health must begin within the local departments. The focus should be less on removing the stigma of mental health and rather focused on the benefits of mental health. Because of the prejudices and misperceptions, there are many who remain misinformed or unaware of the benefits of mental health care. It is important to understand that the stigma around mental health creates barriers for this who most need mental health services.
Firefighters are taught early on not to leave any person behind. It has been etched on countless plaques, statues and national monuments honouring those who have fallen. At this time in our history, we must encourage our fellow firefighters to find the care that they need. We must work together to remove the stigma that has fuelled our indifference to mental health and we must encourage our fellow first responder to seek professional care.
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Stanley, I. H., Hom, M. A., & Joiner, T. E. (2016). A systematic review of suicidal thoughts and behaviors among police officers, firefighters, EMTs, and paramedics. Clinical Psychology Review, 44, 25–44. https://doi.org/10.1016/j. cpr.2015.12.002