Depression Among the Nation’s First Responders
First responders are emergency personnel that are the initial people at the scene of accidents, disasters and attacks. These public servants put themselves in harm’s way on a daily basis to help other people.
As a result of the intensity of the conditions in which they work, they often suffer emotional consequences that can include depression, post-traumatic stress and feelings of helplessness that they cannot do more. These reactions are so prevalent that many departments across the country are instituting screening and treatment plans to help these individuals deal with the aftereffects of their important work.
First Responders and Depression
In many ways, it is not surprising that first responders are vulnerable to developing depression and other emotional problems, which can be severe enough to lead to suicide. These workers may find it difficult to sufficiently de-stress after intense activities, and the culture that exists among emergency workers does not encourage sharing of feelings or admitting vulnerabilities1.
However, these individuals may see and experience things in their work that make it difficult to shake off at the end of the day. Sharing the horrors with spouses or family members is not a workable option for them. The images and feelings they carry can fester for a long time, gradually wearing down their ability to put the experience into perspective. They can become hopeless and unable to deal with the lingering emotions, and chronic depression can result.
Greater Risk for PTSD
Studies find that individuals who work as first responders are also more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of their tasks. They often see devastating scenes of death and destruction. They are often put in danger themselves, in the service of others. They must work amid the chaos, smells, noise and uncertainty of a variety of circumstances. They must always be ready to act, and yet must always be in control of their actions and emotions.
These workers often suffer depression, isolation, recurring memories, hypervigilance and nightmares that are characteristic of PTSD. Efforts to ensure they are treated for depression can help them recognize and manage the aftereffects of their experiences that can last for months or even years after an event2.
Obstacles to Treatment for Depression
The culture of first responders relies heavily on the opinion and support of others on the team. Many individuals feel it is a sign of weakness to admit to feelings of depression or emotional problems related to post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition, departments often rely on self-reporting to determine the need for psychological counseling, so many fail to receive the help they need. However, today, more departments around the country are instituting screening and review programs before and after crisis events to ensure that those who need help get the appropriate counseling and medication they need to function normally.
An effective screening program for depression for the nation’s first responders can help provide treatment for these individuals so that they can be more effective on the job and more fulfilled in their personal lives.