Study reveals roadblocks to mental health counseling in first responders

First responders believe mental health is as important as physical health, but feel that there are repercussions for seeking help


By Sam Dutton, Ph.D., LCSW
Program director for University of Phoenix College of Humanities and Sciences

First responders not only deal with everyday stress, but they are on the front lines of situations that are often extraordinary and traumatic. These experiences, compounded by long hours and the need to make quick decisions, can take a toll on their mental health and wellbeing. Considering the nature of their jobs, it is not surprising that most first responders believe mental health and wellness is important. However, the stigma associated with mental health counseling might be preventing first responders from actually acquiring the help they need.  

According to a recent University of Phoenix survey that looked at first responders’ perceptions about mental health, nearly all first responders (93 percent) agree that mental health is as important as physical health and more than eight in 10 (83 percent) believe that people who receive counseling generally get better. However, 47 percent feel that there would be repercussions on the job for seeking professional counseling. Among those who feel this way, the repercussions of seeking counseling cited most often included receiving different treatment from coworkers (53 percent) or supervisors (52 percent) and being perceived as weak by colleagues/peers (46 percent). These numbers indicate that the stigma is not only still present, but prevalent.

Organizations and individuals that support first responders need to change the conversation about mental health, share their experiences and encourage others to seek help if they need it. (Photo/Max Pixel)
Organizations and individuals that support first responders need to change the conversation about mental health, share their experiences and encourage others to seek help if they need it. (Photo/Max Pixel)

While a stigma remains, the good news is that most first responders are open to getting the help they need. The survey revealed that 67 percent have either sought or considered professional counseling. This is encouraging and shows that we are slowly changing perceptions about mental health.

Still, old stereotypes can cause first responders to be leery about professional help. Those who have not sought out counseling cite the following reasons:

  • Not feeling comfortable speaking to another person about their problems (20 percent)
  • Not wanting people to perceive them as being weak (19 percent)
  • Feeling judged by colleagues in their profession (19 percent)
  • Feeling like it would affect their career/chance for a promotion (17 percent)

These results indicate that first responders want to stay on the job, but are afraid to ask for the help they need.

Why it’s important to discuss mental health

As a community, there are steps we can take to erase the stigmas associated with receiving professional counseling. There is no shame in seeking treatment for the flu or visiting the dentist. The same should be true of taking care of our mental wellbeing. Organizations and individuals that support first responders need to change the conversation about mental health, share their experiences and encourage others to seek help if they need it. It starts with having an open and honest dialogue.

The survey also found that first responders can be more open to getting help if those around them are willing to discuss mental health. If a team leader spoke about their own experience, 82 percent said they would be encouraged to seek professional counseling. Peers have an even greater influence, with 89 percent of first responders saying if a close colleague, friend or family member spoke up, they would be encouraged to seek help for themselves. Many people, not just first responders, are unaware of others that have sought counseling. The stigma associated with mental health has not allowed these conversations to happen. Some assume that if no one is speaking about it, it must not be happening. In actuality, many people are seeking help: they are just not speaking about it.

Historically, first responders have worked in a culture where you are expected to keep quiet and handle it. That approach does not work and if mental health issues are not addressed, they can affect job performance, family life and even physical health. Often it just takes one trusted person speaking up to change perceptions. On the job and in the mental health field, we need to provide a safe space where first responders can discuss mental health confidentially and without judgment or repercussions.

One organization leading the charge in changing the culture of mental health and offering resources is Give an Hour. This national non-profit provides free, confidential mental health care and support to first responders, service members and their families, as well as other at-risk populations.

When we begin at accepting that we all have struggles and it is OK to seek help, we can and will change our culture surrounding mental health.

If you or someone one you know is in need of mental health services, there are several resources available. University of Phoenix operates six counseling centers in five states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada and Utah) that offer free services to anyone in the community, including first responders. Additionally, Give an Hour harnesses the generosity of nearly 7,000 mental health professionals who volunteer their time and expertise to help first responders, veterans, service members and their families. If you would like to help change the culture of mental health in America, please visit changedirection.org.
 

About the author

Retired Lt. Col Dr. Samantha Dutton served in the Air Force for 27 years. During her service, Dutton directed, led and evaluated a full spectrum of mental health operations for service members and their families. She now serves as program director for the University of Phoenix College of Humanities and Sciences.

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