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Mental Health Care for First Responders

Jaclyn Lopez Witmer, Psy.D.

The role of a first responder is to help others. For firefighters, healthcare workers, and police officers, strength and bravery are highly valued—and many first responders adopt a “whatever it takes” mentality. However, constant exposure to traumatic events and life-threatening situations—including the SARS-CoV-2 (coronavirus) pandemic within the last year—as well as the stress of working long hours under high-stakes conditions can take a significant toll on mental health. High rates of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, and suicide make it clear that first responder mental health requires early intervention.

If you’re experiencing mental health symptoms or navigating trauma, help is available. Here’s how mental health programs, therapy, and counseling can help firefighters, law enforcement officials, emergency medical technicians (EMTs), and other responders improve their mental well-being.

mental health of first responders

Mental Health Challenges for First Responders

Mental health conditions, including anxiety disorders, substance use, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicidal ideation are common among firefighters, law enforcement officers, paramedics, emergency medical services (EMS) professionals, and other responders.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), public health and public safety workers are exposed to countless hazards throughout their careers that may contribute to mental health concerns, including:

  • Death, grief, and loss
  • Physical injuries and pain
  • Threats to physical safety, such as COVID-19
  • Long hours of work away from family members
  • Frequent shifts
  • Poor sleep
  • Physical hardship

Specific mental health problems can also be brought on from the fast pace of work, as responders are constantly responding to highly stressful and risky calls. According to a study, 69 percent of EMS personnel have never had sufficient time to recover between traumatic events.

According to a 2018 study, law enforcement officers and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. Moreover, 85 percent of first responders have reported experiencing symptoms of mental health conditions, with responders in the U.S. facing a significantly higher risk of depression and PTSD.

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Mental Health Services and Treatment Options

Supporting and protecting your community can lead to stress, anxiety, and other mental health problems. Ultimately, how you cope with these emotions can affect your well-being, the care you provide to others, and the well-being of your loved ones. Some valuable mental health resources to help you cope include:

  • Therapy. Psychotherapy can help you navigate your mental health concerns with a professional therapist, allowing you to identify feelings, thoughts, and behaviors that may be contributing to poor mental well-being. Psychotherapy is an effective treatment for mental disorders, including depression and PTSD, and can help you find the emotional support you need to cope with trauma.
  • Support groups. Especially for responders experiencing PTSD or substance abuse, support groups can provide a valuable opportunity to connect with others in similar situations. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers mental health resources and advocacy groups for individuals with mental health conditions, including NAMI Family, NAMI Basics, and NAMI Connection.
  • Social support. Experiencing trauma and other mental health concerns might make you feel like withdrawing from friends and family, but it’s important to seek social support. Connecting with friends and family members can help you combat loneliness and regain strength, according to PMC.
  • Community resources. For responders facing homelessness, financial concerns, or other issues, local community resources can provide support. The Veterans Administration provides a comprehensive list of first responder resources here.
  • Lifestyle changes. Whether you’re a primary care provider, firefighter, or police officer, healthy lifestyle changes can help you cope with stress and build resilience, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC recommends talking to your coworkers about job stress, eating balanced meals, and taking breaks from your smartphone.
  • Hotlines. If you’re experiencing a mental health crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or the NAMI Helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) to speak with a trained dispatcher for immediate support. The Veterans Crisis Line (1-800-273-8255) also offers 24/7 support for service members.

Mental Health Care for First Responders

From protection against infectious diseases to suicide prevention, first responders play an integral role in strengthening our communities. Whether you’re a healthcare provider, social worker, firefighter, or paramedic, psychotherapy is the first step toward improving your mental well-being.

To find a therapist, reach out to a mental health provider through WithTherapy. We’ll connect you to a licensed therapist you feel comfortable with. One of our experienced, compassionate mental health providers will help you navigate your mental health, overcome trauma, and live a more fulfilling life.

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