Breaking the Stigma – Part 1

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.  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.

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.

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.

The #2 reason first responders don’t seek help: they believe their department or agency won’t stand by them.  I have far too many stories that I can tell you 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, I know of officers whose careers have been ended just because they made an appointment to talk to a therapist about their struggles.

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.

Issues associated with the culture of emergency services also contribute to the ongoing stigma associated with seeking help, and that will be the topic we address in the next article in this series on breaking the stigma of mental health for first responders.  Meanwhile, if you have questions, or if you would like to chat with one of our peer support specialists, please feel free to reach out to us at m.me/callforbackup.org/.

Published by Chaplain David Edwards

David is a police chaplain, 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 and member of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association.

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