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First Responders Suffer: How Mental Health First Aid Can Help

Some days John McCormack feels like he can take on the world. But then he hears a baby cry or a siren wail, “and my heart starts pounding and I experience a gut-wrenching feeling,” he said.

John is a paramedic with the NSW Ambulance in New South Wales, Australia, and he battles the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) brought on by his job (“PTSD: How Working as a Paramedic Left Me With a Mental Health Emergency of My Own,” Huffington Post, September 5, 2017).

John began his work as a paramedic excited by the unpredictability of each new case. But about four or five years into the job, he began to feel different. He became moody, angry and depressed and stopped enjoying life. He began having nightmares, drinking to excess and having suicidal thoughts. His wife threatened to leave him. John said when he finally sought help after one especially bad case, he learned he had severe PTSD that warranted immediate treatment. He found it hard to be away from work while he treated his symptoms.

Sadly, he is not alone. We know that first responders like John are more likely than members of the general public to develop behavioral health problems, including depression and PTSD, and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. Firefighters and emergency medical services personnel are first on the scene to not only witness an accident, injury or shocking event, but also deal with the emotional repercussions – both within themselves and their community. They have little time to care for their own health and mental health needs while ministering to the needs of others.

That’s why Mental Health First Aid introduced the Fire/EMS module, which provides a fundamental understanding of the common mental health challenges experienced by first responders and the skills to identify and respond to someone who may be in crisis. The program also teaches post-crisis strategies for first responders to better assess and access support for themselves, their colleagues and community members.

John wishes his employer had noticed his symptoms before it got as bad as it did. “My suggestion would be to providing training for staff in Mental Health First Aid, so that we are able to support each other,” he said. “This would encourage people to seek help and stamp out the stigma that still exists in emergency services.”

If you are a first responder or know someone who is, consider taking the First/EMS course so you can equip yourself with the tools necessary to recognize and respond to a person experiencing a mental health or substance use challenge. Find a course near you today.