First Responders and Mental Health

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Written by Marie...

  A former first responder here. You know the stigma in Fire/EMS and Police. If you take an antidepressant- you’re crazy. If a call bothers you- you’re just not cut out for the job. Now this mostly pertains to the “old school” folks out there, but there is still a nasty stigma attached to mental health and first responders.

   When I started out, I was 18 years old. That was in 1996. I was fresh out of high school. I knew I wanted to be in EMS since I could walk and talk. My dad was a firefighter, and my uncle was a cop. It was inevitable for me to become a first responder. Even still, no one can prepare you for what you are about to face.

   First responders often turn to “self-medication”. Very often it is drinking or even drugs. Sometimes sex used as a “self-medication”. Often it is all the above, together. Often it leads to addiction, health problems and even suicide. It isn’t healthy. Mentally or physically.

   Calls aren’t the only stressful thing you have to worry about. You have to be concerned about your safety on these said calls. What people don’t know is, the job is dangerous. You can be attacked or hit by a car, even vehicle accidents. There are so many things going on in your mind.

   When I was just starting out, I was involved in a wreck that should have killed us. I was not injured badly. But mentally, I was a wreck. I refused to get into another vehicle similar to that one. My bosses tried sending us to a counselor but we stopped going. Partially due to the stigma of going to a ‘shrink’ and me trying to prove that I’m strong enough to do the job. So, I just sat down and talked it out with my partner. That worked for a while but I still wouldn't get in that vehicle. One day, the folks on my shift forced me into that vehicle. We went through that day and I got through it. I was so much better afterwards.

   I recently learned that was a type, even though crude, of exposure therapy. That is a proven technique that helps long term. I hadn’t thought about my experience in years. Before, we had little debriefing circles. It had involved all first responders that were on the call. Now, there are therapist or counselors, that you can speak to. They’re specialize in trauma. The counselor I spoke to years ago, wasn’t specially trained to handle that type of stress. Plus, he also didn’t know a dang thing about emergency personnel.   

   Now they have trained therapist/counselors who specialize in dealing with First Responder’s problem. Some of the counselors either retired first responders, military or have family members that were in LEO or EMS or Fire. There are techniques to help. The stigma is slowly dying. Too slow. There is no shame in asking for help. You are NOT weak for asking for help.  It actually shows and proves how strong you are. My first responders out there are very strong. You are cut out for the job. So what if something happened and you need help to deal. You see things that other people don’t see. You deal with things that others don’t deal with. Even still, they are the best jobs in the world. I often time miss it. If there is anything I’ve learned in all my years, take care of yourself. 

I always say it’s the hardest job you’ll ever love!

    So please, do me a favor. Ask for help. Go to your Human Resources Office. Ask them for an EAP (or employee assistance plan) information. No one has to know what for. You call the company and go from there. No one knows but you and the EAP company about what's going on.  EAP will also help with different types counseling such as couples counseling, traumatic and financial counseling.

     Please, for the love of all that is holy, please seek help. Don’t suffer alone. You are not alone. Self-medicating only takes you so far. It may silence the demons but won’t get rid of them. If you get yourself in a bind, there are numbers to call.

SAMHSA has a hotline (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) 1-800-622-HELP (4357)


Please stay safe out there. Look out for your fellow first responders.

If you are in South Carolina, please consider Choices Counseling and Advocacy Center, LLC

Call me to talk to someone 803-851-4049. If you want more information on our staff, check out our website,  Thank you! 

Marie B-former first responder