by Elizabeth Willman, MS, LPC, CSAC, SAP
Our current media is infiltrated with violent attacks among various religious, cultural, ethnic and political groups that are receiving large amounts of attention. As a result, one of the most lethal and deadly attacks we fail to acknowledge is the physical, emotional and spiritual attack upon our current law enforcement officers and first responders. These highly resilient men and women walk the streets daily, work in, and interact in one of the most lethal, violent and traumatic environments with daily exposure to traumatic incidences and what is considered routine occupational exposure.
Law enforcement officers, firefighters, dispatchers and emergency service workers are frequently exposed to death, trauma, crime, substance abuse, prostitution and many other forms of violence. Our men and women in these professions are exposed to hopeless and toxic situations that most of us never have to face because, after all, isn’t that why we have first responders in the first place? Isn’t that their job, and why they chose this profession? These questions and comments are often made with lack of regard for the types of situations these individuals face. All too often we hear comments such as, this is part of your job and what you signed up for.
When we fail to recognize these types of issues and accept them as routine duties of the job, we forget about the physical and mental well being of our first responders. Research indicates that exposure to high levels of stress often results in both physical and emotional distress (Chopko & Schwartz, 2009). Continual daily exposure to traumatic and critical incidences slowly build up over time and eventually begin to permeate into the lives of our first responders leaving them with sense of helplessness, hopelessness and isolation. Frequent exposure to stressful situations, trauma, and violence can result in cumulative symptoms. If left untreated first responders often develop poor coping skills, which can often lead to depression, anxiety, cumulative stress disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and, in some cases, suicide (Retrieved March 17, 2015 from http://badgeoflife.com).
Due to the stigma of mental health and mental illness in our culture, many mental health issues will often go untreated until it is too late. Stigma among first responders is infinite times greater than that of the general public because typically it may cost them their gun, badge, lack of trust in the department, and possibly their career. In some cases, many first responders will suffer in silence and seek comfort in external unhealthy coping mechanism such as substance abuse, gambling, affairs, and more often than not suicide.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, addictions, and cynicism are running rampant among our first responders. However, as mental health professionals we need to come along side our first responders and assist in reducing stigma and bridging the gap between the first responder and the mental health clinicians.
Integration of wellness checks, peer support teams, and advocacy for mental wellness courses in departments and academies will provide educational tools and links to mental health services. As a result, our first responders will be better equipped to a first line of defense with their own mental health issues as well as those in their department and they will seek the help they need. It needs to become acceptable for our first responders to speak up and say, “I need help”, and we need departments and administrators to say, “What can I do and how can I help?” so that our first responders no longer need to suffer in silence.
About the Author: Elizabeth Willman is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) and Clinical Substance Abuse Counselor (CSAC) in the State of Wisconsin. She is also a qualified Department of Transportation Substance Abuse Professional (SAP). She has specialized training and experience working in the areas of law enforcement, first responders, addictions, trauma and family therapy. Elizabeth has completed studies in Police Couples and Police Occupational research with Dr. Robin Inwald of Cleverdale, New York. She has been published in the Handbook of Police Psychology as well as the Journal of Law Enforcement. She completed her master’s thesis, Police Stressors, Mental Health Issues and Provider Preferences Among Police Officers, in 2010. She has worked with law enforcement agencies and has assisted in officer involved shootings, research and peer support for the past eight years. She is an associate member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), and the American Psychological Association Division (APA)18. She enjoys swimming, running, cycling and is involved in the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary.