Depression Is A Major Issue For First Responders

By Kelly Burch 09/15/17
According to a new study, one in four first responders struggle with mental health.
emergency service workers driving in an ambulance

A quarter of first responders suffer from depression, according to preliminary results from an ongoing study from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

The study aims to gather information about how firefighters and emergency medical technicians view mental health services. According to the study, 18 to 37% of first responders meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the suicide rate for this group is 25 times greater than that of the general population. 

Sara Jones, a psychiatric nurse practitioner who is organizing the study, told Arkansas Public Media that there has been a lot of research on PTSD among military veterans and law enforcement, but not enough study of trauma in firefighters and paramedics. “The research was not that abundant,” said Jones. She had an interest in the subject professionally and personally, since she is married to a firefighter. 

Jones is particularly interested in seeing how people—predominantly men—in these professions view mental health services, which have traditionally been viewed with a lot of stigma and skepticism. “You’ll be looked at differently. Not only as a person, but also as someone you’re running into a fire with, that they might be concerned about how you are going to handle a situation or even about their own safety,” Jones said.

But that's slowly changing, Becky Stewart, an EMS chief in Arkansas, told NWA News. "The culture is changing a little bit too. It used to be we're macho. We put on our capes and we go out there and we save the world," Stewart said.

Now some departments, including Stewart’s, provide mental health services. "We provide counseling and coaching by mental health professionals, behavioral specialists who are trained in emergency services work and they know what we do," she said. 

Tim Grimes, a retired firefighter and EMT, told Arkansas Public Media that he is still dealing with PTSD even after his retirement. After one gruesome scene that had Grimes zipping burned victims into body bags, he was unable to grill outside for two years. “Certain things, I will never forget,” he said.

"If you survive in EMS until you retire, it's still part of your life,” said Steve Metcalf, a paramedic.

Like many first responders, Grimes has had trouble sleeping, a very common complaint among the people surveyed. “I could not lay in bed at night and turn my head off, turn my brain off. I just kept going over things and over things,” he said. 

Jones hopes that her study will help open conversations and identify ways to help first responders deal with trauma on a larger scale. 

“It’s showing that there’s a problem, but more importantly, something is going to be done about it,” she said. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.