First responders deal with a whole host of stressors on the job. Day in and day out, those who protect and serve can witness both great moments, as well as horrifying moments. These events can leave mental impressions and lasting still frames in their minds. Sensory details from bad experiences can be triggered at unexpected times; fore fronting emotional swings or feelings that are hard to cope with.
This emotional strain can sometimes lead to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), acute stress disorder (ASD), and/or suicide if no help or outlet is found. “Depending on how they process what they see, first responders can develop a sort of “tunnel vision” that makes them feel like they have no other options but to kill themselves,” says Sheila Roth, a therapist who counsels first responders. Unfortunately, with the occupation comes the social stigma of a “macho culture” and toughness where there is no room for mental disorders. Many do not reach for help because they see mental illness as a weakness or character flaw. Others stay quiet because they fear ridicule by their peers or presiding officer. Recently, the Journal of Emergency Medical Services conducted a survey with findings of first responders fearing to ask for help because they might be “laughed at” or “end up losing a 22-year career.”
“We suffer from what I call cultural brainwashing,” says “We suffer what I call cultural brainwashing,” says Jeff Dill, a captain at the Palatine Rural Fire Protection District in Illinois and licensed counselor who runs the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA), a nonprofit that tracks fire/EMS suicides and works to educate responders on the mental stressors that can impact their lives. “Once we put this uniform on, we’re expected to act a certain way: Be strong. Don’t show weakness. Don’t be the weak link of the company—we can handle problems on our own.
“Then when things go wrong, either on the job or because of the things we see or what’s going on in our personal lives, we try to handle everything on our own. That can include things like stress, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress. We forget we’re human beings first, and it becomes quite overwhelming.”
Jeff Dill, a captain at the Palatine Rural Fire Protection District in Illinois and licensed counselor who runs the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA), a nonprofit that tracks fire/EMS suicides and works to educate responders on the mental stressors that can impact their lives. “Once we put this uniform on, we’re expected to act a certain way: Be strong. Don’t show weakness. Don’t be the weak link of the company – we can handle problems on our own…We forget we’re human beings first, and it becomes quite overwhelming.”
Captain Dill recently did training for the Omaha Police Department, Omaha Fire Department, and family members of anyone on the force. His main message for the week was on first responder suicides and how important it is to find help, whether it is the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or talking with peers about a tough day of hard calls on the job. The workshop included a participatory session where the attendees could act out potential conversations; going through what language to use and how to direct the person to help.
During the trainings, many wanted to know what situations increase a first responder’s risk for developing a stress disorder or suicide. While a number of highly stressful events can occur during the course of a responder’s career, there are specific situations that can increase someone’s susceptibility to a stress disorder and/or suicide (not an exclusive list):
- Not having control over the volume of calls on a shift
- Having to respond to calls after a particularly disturbing call
- Death of a child in the line of duty
- Failed rescue – harbor feelings of hopelessness
- Line of duty death or suicide of a peer
- Many service years – stress can accumulate over time
As common as these situations are for our first responders, getting the proper help can seem foreign. With the support and care of family, friends, and peers, many are able to recover from the effects of a traumatic event. These brave souls should not have to bear their troubles alone. They are a part of the community, just like the rest of us, and need help from time to time like the ones they serve.
For more information on PTSD or any other mental illnesses, visit https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/index.shtml .
To review the warning signs of suicide or learn how to talk to someone who is having thoughts of suicide, please visit 13minutes.org or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Janae Shillito, Project Coordinator, The Kim Foundation
Janae Shillito is the newest edition to The Kim Foundation and serves as Project Coordinator. She holds two science degrees with her alma maters including the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Janae’s love of volunteering and helping those without a voice created a strong desire to become a part of the non-profit world. She enjoys instructing kickboxing classes, reading a good book, and being outside with her husband, Cory, and Rottweiler, Hank.