When It Comes to Mental Wellness, We Are Failing Our Members

by | June 16, 2023

We are failing our members.

As much as we admired and appreciated the senior members of our departments when we came onto the job, they failed most of us. For all the direction, advice and guidance they gave us, they did not adequately prepare us for what we now know are the mental and physical stressors of the job.

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“You Signed Up for This”

In any facet of emergency services — EMS, the fire service, corrections or law enforcement — only those who are on the job (or have left the job) truly know the emotional and physical stresses put on our minds and bodies. We understand the bad shoulders, painful backs, sore hips and grinding knees. Crawling down dark hallways, physical altercations, lifting patients, toting heavy equipment. Each of these can leave us with long-lasting injuries.

Those experienced members never really told us to take care of our bodies. Still, we remember them groaning when they got up, constantly shifting the weight of their duty gear, or even lighting a cigarette after a working fire. We recognize these small indicators as evidence of their abused bodies. They didn’t talk about things like flexibility, core strength, endurance, mental health or resiliency; it was all about grit and just doing the job.

They didn’t tell us about the mental stressors such as the anxiety, fear, shock and depression we would experience. They never told us how to process those things we were going through; but they also didn’t tell us that what we were seeing wasn’t “normal” and that our reactions to them didn’t have to be “normal” either. They normalized those things for us. They would tell us things like, “It just comes with the job,” “You signed up for this,” and “You will get used to it.” They set us up for failure, and if the current generation of leaders and influencers does not change our view of mental wellness in emergency services, we are going to fail those in our charge as well.

Developing Resilience

We need to better prepare our recruits for the mental stressors of the job. They do not know that what they are stepping into is not what they see on television, in movies and even in some training materials. Working in emergency services, they are going to witness first-hand the very worst of what people can do to other people. They’ll see traumatic accidents, bad things happening to innocent people. They are going to watch parents experience the loss of a child, and children the loss of a parent. They are going to experience those things in real time —the moments seared right into their minds. If we, as the leaders of today, tell them, “You’ll get used to it,” we are failing them.

We need to better support our current members who are living these experiences today. Many of our personnel are dragging around the baggage of bad experiences right now. They bring that baggage to work with them every shift, and the next shift they may add a little more. We need to support their mental wellness, give them outlets to express themselves, and help them purge what they need to purge in a positive and productive way.

The thorough critical incident stress debriefings are great for working through the major crime scenes, the mass casualty incidents, the fatal fires with multiple victims. But what about the other tragic instances we experience more commonly? The child abuse we see, the domestic violence, the teen suicides, the lives lost to drug overdoses, the exploitation of the innocent? Administration doesn’t call in the counselors for these weekly or even daily calls our personnel work. I don’t believe most of us today are telling our people, “Suck it up” or “You’ll get used to it,” but what is our inaction telling them?

Reframing the Discussion

It is not that the leaders of today do not care or understand. After all, we have all experienced these same things in our careers. But I do believe that many of us are not prepared for how to respond when our people are in crisis.

In our early years, for all the great things they did for us, most of us did not have senior members, supervisors, or mentors who showed us a better way. They didn’t make us wash the carcinogens from our bunker gear, wear our ballistic vests on every call, or always wear our gloves even if the patient “looked fine.” They certainly did not mean to push us further into harm’s way — they were just as poorly prepared by their own leaders. But now, in our time, we have an opportunity to break that chain. As the leaders of today, if we do not put renewed emphasis on the mental wellness of our members, we are failing them.

For this current generation of leaders, one of the biggest challenges is to better prepare and better support the mental health of our members. As a chief officer in the fire service, one of my initial fears was the possibility of losing a member in the line of duty. Then, it was losing a member to the various occupational cancers which affect firefighters. While both problems cause many chiefs sleepless nights, we need to be at least as concerned about the mental health of our members as we are about their physical health. We need to make our people aware of the mental health problems first responders are prone to and teach them how to identify possible symptoms in themselves and in their co-workers. We need to give them tools to express themselves, and routes to assistance when those self-help tools are not enough.

We need to get rid of the mantra of “You’ll get used to it” and replace it with “Please ask for help when you need it.” Add to that, “I’m here for you,” and we might just make a difference with those we serve.

One resource available to all emergency services providers is Lexipol’s Cordico Wellness App. This mobile solution provides first responders with multiple resources for physical and mental wellness as well as access to mental health professionals in their area.

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