May is Mental Health Awareness Month. There’s never been a better time to talk about the mental toll of law enforcement and other first-response work. This toll extends, not only to the first responders and emergency personnel themselves but also to those who handle Dispatching and staff 911 call centers. The sad fact is that work in emergency response and law enforcement can create a heavy burden that the brave people in these professions shoulder with little complaint… sometimes until it’s too late.
One of the most extreme examples of this emotional toll was, understandably, September 11th, 2001. Not only did that terrible atrocity claim the lives of many fire, law enforcement, and other emergency response personnel, but among those who survived, some suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) more than two decades later.
As NPR reported on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, “Many people in New York City and neighboring areas who witnessed the disaster experienced symptoms of trauma in the months that followed. Researchers studying the health of survivors, recovery workers, and witnesses… say the event led to increased rates of mental health problems such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorders. Researchers at Columbia University led the first effort to track the mental health of people who witnessed the attacks, surveying them in the weeks after the disaster and following them for three years.”
What the researchers found was “about a doubling of the baseline rate of depression,” as people experienced a range of PTSD symptoms related to the attack. The researchers also found that “people who had a closer experience of the 9/11 attacks — say those who worked in the buildings, or people who lost loved ones — were at a higher risk of having PTSD and depression.”
This extreme example, however, almost pales in comparison to the day-to-day trauma experienced by those who work diligently to protect our communities. According to the CDC, “First responders, including law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical services (EMS), and public safety telecommunicators, are crucial to ensuring public safety and health. First responders may be at elevated risk for suicide because of the environments in which they work, their culture, and stress, both occupational and personal.”
The report explains that law enforcement and firefighting personnel are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. “Furthermore, EMS providers are 1.39 times more likely to die by suicide than the public… Studies have found that between 17% and 24% of public safety telecommunicators have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and 24% have symptoms of depression. While telecommunicators are often the very first responders engaged with those on the scene, research on their suicide risk and mental health has lagged.”
In other words, the problem is real and has yet to be explored fully. As we are starting out Mental Health Awareness Month, it is more important than ever to be aware of the toll emergency response and telecommunications work takes on the personnel devoted to these professions. We must also support continued work to quantify these risks and provide treatment and prevention programs for them. The people this research and these programs would help are themselves working to keep our communities safe. Backing them up and looking out for their welfare is the least we can do.