The understatement of the decade is that these are unprecedented times for all of us. We should all be looking for as much information as possible to help us manage the additional stress and anxiety associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, especially first responders and medical personnel who are on the front lines every day. The question is whether the stigma that has long been associated with seeking mental health treatment can be broken as a result of that increased stress.
There are a variety of incidents that first responders experience in the course of their work that can have an impact on their mental and emotional well-being. In fact, research done by Call for Backup reveals that 91% of first responders agree that what they see on the job effects them emotionally, and fully two-thirds are concerned about the emotional impact of their work. Whether it’s just the constant activity during a shift that keeps them from being able to pause and rest once in a while, or exposure to the gruesome nature of the some of the scenes they respond to, or things as serious as being involved in a shooting or experiencing the death of a colleague in the line of duty, our emergency services personnel are expected to absorb all that stress and trauma and go on about their lives as if everything is normal.
The truth is, our first responders become the receptacle for a lot of garbage that is dumped on them throughout the course of their career, and those working in emergency services need to become better at managing the mental and emotional clutter created by all that trash. The truth is, they are usually not very good at doing that. Add to that the increased workload due to even shorter staffing levels (for example, over 500 officers of the Detroit Police Department are currently quarantined and unable to work), and the increased risk of exposure to a deadly disease for which there is no vaccine or known effective treatment, and managing that clutter becomes much more difficult.
What would cause a person who is struggling so greatly just to keep packing things down further instead of taking out the proverbial trash when it needs to go? To answer that question, we usually use the word stigma.
The #1 reason first responders don’t ask for help is their fear of that stigma. Humanizing the Badge conducted some research back in 2017 to explore the phenomenon of suicide among police officers. One question on our survey, which had a total of 3,892 responses from police officers across the country, asked essentially why they don’t reach out for help even though they need it. When analyzing those open-ended responses, the most frequent answer by far used the word stigma in some form. This is certainly consistent with other research in both the military and emergency services, so it’s not really a surprise at all.
Our more recent research tells us that 80% of first responders surveyed believe there is a stigma associated with reaching out for help that is perpetuated by their peers. There is a culture that we’ve created that says that we have to be tough, that we have to learn how to handle the stress, and that we can take care of ourselves without any outside help.
The #2 reason first responders don’t seek help: they believe their department or agency won’t stand by them. There are far too many stories that can be told about officers who have been let down by their department when they admitted they were in need of some help as they struggled with the stresses of the job, or post-traumatic stress after a critical incident. From administrative leave, to suspension, to suspension pending termination, to outright termination, our organization has heard from officers whose careers have been ended just because they made an appointment to talk to a therapist about their struggles.
It’s not surprising, then, that our recent research tells us that 89% of first responders believe there is a stigma associated with reaching out for help that is perpetuated by their department or agency. Even though the International Association of Chiefs of Police has been publishing guidelines for departments to follow to create a healthier culture within their departments, the vast majority of agencies in the country are still not coming close to providing an environment in which it is okay to not be okay, and to ask for help when you need it.
To all the police officers as well as other first responders reading this: please pay attention to your own mental well-being during this time. Talk to someone you trust about how the current situation is affecting you, and seek professional help if you need to. To the command staff out there who are reading this: your personnel are vital to your mission, and it is your responsibility to help ensure they stay well, and that includes their mental well-being. Take a redemptive rather than a punitive approach when one of your officers is showing signs of distress. Let’s work together to not only win the fight in this pandemic, but to win the battle over the stigma associated with taking care of our mental and emotional health.
Chaplain David Edwards is a police chaplain, reserve police officer, author, and educator, and is affectionately known as “Pa” to his grandkids. David is board certified in crisis response and pastoral counseling and is an approved instructor for the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation as well as a member of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association. The nonprofit organization which he founded, Call for Backup, provides mental wellness and peer support for first responders across the country along with training programs designed to reduce the number of suicides in emergency services. Call for Backup can be found on social media and their website at callforbackup.org.