Mental Health and the First Responder – Part 1
In the last two years, first responders in general, and police officers and firefighters more specifically, have been enduring tremendous stress while dealing with the challenges of a nation divided. The 2020 presidential election; the COVID-19 pandemic; the public murder of George Floyd, social justice protesting following Mr. Floyd’s death, and looters and rioters taking advantage of the climate across the country; and now, a variant of COVID that appears more contagious, and increased exposure.
Counting The Cost
With the information available today, we are becoming more aware of the toll a lengthy career as a first responder may be having on the brave men and women holding these positions. A career as a first responder is a hazardous duty, and the longer one holds such a position, the more “at risk” that person is to issues such as PTSD, depression, anxiety, and suicidality.
As a pastor, I think about a scripture in the Bible that speaks of cost counting and proper preparation. The scripture asks, “Which of you, wishing to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost to see if he has the resources to complete it?” (Luke 14:28 NKJV) From what we now know about the challenges faced by first responders, it will be beneficial for anyone considering a career in this field to research the challenges and rewards that come with being a first responder to consider if this is the right career for them.
What Has Your Career Cost You?
Sometimes answering this question can be difficult for the first responder because certain signs or symptoms can be difficult to see or acknowledge. To help determine if there might be existing challenges that are overlooked, here are some warning signs that can help to determine if additional care might be necessary:
- Have you noticed that you are becoming more impatient than usual?
- Has conflict become a regular part of your relationships?
- Do you find yourself drinking more to feel relaxed, to calm down, or to sleep?
- Are you “on edge” often, or have you become more hyper-vigilant than usual?
- Are you engaging in recreational drug use to feel “better,” or to function in your career?
- Do you notice lapses in memory, or are you “forgetful” more frequently?
If you have answered yes to one or more of these questions, it may be time to invest in a physical, as well as a mental health assessment. Taking care of yourself or reaching out for help is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of strength. First responders have given many of their best years to a career of protecting and serving others. It is time that first responders invest as much, if not more time, in taking care of themselves and their families.
Self-Care and First Responder Wellness
First responders are not always as good at helping themselves as they are at helping others. It takes a special personality to endure a lengthy career as a first responder, and the toll that it can take on the people who choose to serve in this field can be high. A career as a first responder has cost marriages and families, mental health and well-being, physical health because of injuries and illnesses, and yes, sometimes the cost of a career as a first responder is the life of the first responder. Practices in self-care and wellness are helping to change this trend. First responders are beginning to understand the toll that their careers are taking on them, and many have made the brave decision to become happier and healthier. Beginning regular exercise routines, eating in a healthier manner, getting an adequate amount of sleep and rest, and talking to a professional, minister, mentor, coach, spouse, partner, or friend, are all steps in the right direction toward self-care and wellness for the first responder.
A career as a first responder can be dangerous, sometimes ending in the death of the person choosing this career. For others, death may not be the way their career ends, but injuries, illnesses, substance abuse, failed marriages, broken relationships, and mental health issues are real possibilities for anyone choosing this field. It is unfortunate but true that a lot of the people serving and saving the lives of others, are terrible at saving themselves. Many of the things that the first responder will see, hear, smell, touch, and do, on a regular basis will take a toll on their mental and physical health unless they do something to counter the negative effects of their job.
Choose to pursue quality mental health care, not because something is wrong, but to prevent something from going wrong. Don’t be good at taking care of your car more than you are at taking care of yourself. The life you save may be your own. If you are a first responder struggling with your mental health, feel free to reach out for dialogue. I welcome a conversation.
Mark Goodson, DA is a Staff Therapist at our University City and Wynnewood Offices; he currently sees clients via online therapy. To set-up an appointment, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-382-6680 ext. 7012.