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First responders leery of seeking mental health help

May 1, 2017
by Tom Valentino, Senior Editor
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A vast majority of first responders say they have experienced a traumatic event on the job and have experienced symptoms related to mental health issues. Far less, however, feel comfortable discussing the subject with their supervisors out of fear of facing repercussions.

According to data released by the University of Phoenix College of Social Sciences, 85% of respondents have experienced symptoms such as:

  • Lack of sleep (69%)
  • Anxiety (46%)
  • Change in eating habits (38%)
  • Mood swings (28%)

Still, 39% say there are repercussions for seeking mental health help at work, such as being treated differently by supervisors, being viewed as weak by colleagues and being looked over for promotions.

Samantha Dutton, PhD, MSW, director of the college’s Social Science program, says the data in the survey is in line with what she observed in her 20 years as a clinical social worker in the U.S. Air Force, treating those with similarly stressful careers.

“As a country, we are leery of discussing mental health, but when it comes to first responders or military members, there’s even more stigma attached because it could potentially affect their job,” Dutton says. “If you’re a pilot in the Air Force, and you come for mental health treatment, do you have the mental capacity or healthiness to fly planes? Their supervisors will know [they’re seeking mental health treatment], so they’re taking a chance by getting the help they need.”

Dutton also notes that while first responders might fear repercussions for seeking mental health treatment, there could be a multitude of other reasons they were passed over for a promotion, for example. In many cases, Dutton says, first responders actually run a greater risk to their careers by not seeking treatment.

“In reality, people who reach out for help have little impact on their job,” she says. “It’s when they don’t reach out for help that it becomes an issue and things start to spiral out of control and people are aware they aren’t meeting expectations at work.”

Among the survey’s other findings:

  • 51% of first responders say they have participated in pre-exposure mental health training and 49% have received “psychological first aid” after a traumatic incident
  • 47% of respondents say they are battling depression due to incidents on the job
  • 33% say they have received a diagnosis with a mental health disorder, such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • 69% say mental health services are seldom or never used at their organization

 

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