Being intimately experienced with PTSD/Depression and suicidal ideation, I’ve been asked a few times what I believe 1st responder emergency services organizations should be doing to address their employees mental health in an effort to address the the growing number of 1st responder suicides. Below is what I believe should happen:
1. acknowledge that mental health and mental health injuries are as EQUALLY important as physical injuries and back that up with appropriate policies and procedures. As 1st responder organizations we put so much effort into protecting our physical selves (state of the art PPE, policies, procedures) but very little actual effort into protecting our mental and emotional selves
2. recognize , acknowledge and accept that employees battling mental health challenges are stakeholders in workplace mental health and should have an equal opportunity to provide input (if they so choose) as the organizations administrators, HR and the organizations governing politicians
3. recognize, acknowledge and accept that lived experience tends to make one an expert equally as much as the number of letters following your name. Lived experience provides a unique perspective that that no others have and gives those on the “outside” a direct view into what it’s really like
4. acknowledge and accept that emergency services employees ARE DIFFERENT than non-emergency services employees and do not always reach out for many reasons including the culture of our organizations. Therefore its imperative to take a PROACTIVE approach to mental health….stop with the “we are here for you, you are not alone, just reach out” platitudes that we hear so often from organizational leaders and start proactively reaching in to take the burden off the suffering employee
5. recognize and accept that certain HR policies do nothing but make the situation worse like policies that restrict organization staff from actually reaching out to those off work for “confidentiality reasons”. I would rather have my employer/supervisor reach out at least once in a AUTHENTICALLY CARING WAY and let me decide if I am okay with the employer continuing to reach out to me. Certain HR polices take away or don’t even give me any control over that process
6. treat me like a person not like a statistic, number, liability, piece of equipment or damaged goods. I already feel like I’m broken and damaged don’t make that feeling worse. Treat me no different then you would your injured son, daughter, brother, sister, mother, father…In other words treat me like the person I am 7. stop using the fact that you provide your employees an EAP program as proof you are looking after your 1st responders mental health….many if not most EAP programs are totally useless for 1st responders dealing with an OSI like PTSD because many are not trauma informed/trauma trained and most only provide a limited number of sessions
8. Actually start tracking “adverse” calls that your crews and employees respond to as a matter of policy. That way you can see mental health trends and potentially gives you the ability to know who to proactively check in with
9. recognize and accept that nobody enters into a 1st responder career as a blank slate so provide support for this reality. We all come into our careers with baggage, baggage that sometimes impacts our coping strategies and many times makes us pre-disposed to mental health challenges (look up Adverse Childhood Experiences study).
10. stop focusing on JUST the new people coming into our professions with the proactive policies procedures and resiliency skills and strategies and ALSO focus on the portion of your employees who are more senior, have experienced a hell of a lot more and may have entered the profession in a time when “suck it up” was the culture. The new people coming into our professions tend to be a little more open minded about supporting and looking after their mental health. The more seasoned, more senior members not so much. This is a portion of our membership that is being forgotten about.
These suggestions are all directed towards those that lead 1st responder organizations and would go a very long way in creating an environment and culture focused on mental health and less on politics and budgets and an environment where a 1st responder would feel more “comfortable” actually reaching out which, ultimately might save a life.