Opinion: A focus on first responder mental health

By CHRISTOPHER REMILLARD and ANNA COURIE

Published: 04-20-2023 6:00 AM

Christopher T. Remillard is the chief of police for Dunbarton. Dr. Anna Courie is the director of responder wellness for the FirstNet Program at AT&T.

Very few people truly understand what it takes to save another person’s life. In an emergency, most people want to help but not everyone has the skills to take a deep breath, focus through the chaos, and bring their whole self to make a difference in someone’s worst day.

First responders do. And they do it daily, on repeat, because there will always be another fire, another car accident, another shooting, another tragic childhood illness.

First responders are dedicated to protecting others, but reacting to some of the most tragic and visceral scenes imaginable takes a toll. Public safety service comes with great personal sacrifice, and many first responders silently carry the burden.

Statistics tell us that many first responders have experienced traumatic incidents during their public safety careers that stay rooted in the mind and impact their lives.

Compared to the general population, first responders experience higher rates of depression, post-traumatic stress, burnout, anxiety, and other mental health issues. In law enforcement, one study found a more than 20-year difference in life expectancy compared to the average American male. 22.2% of female career firefighters and 38.5% of female volunteer firefighters are at risk for depression. It is estimated that 20-25% of all first responders experience post-traumatic stress. Over 60% of EMS professionals report they don’t have enough time to recover from one incident before being called to another.

Compound these statistics with the stigma around mental health that pervades many departments, as well as the added stressors of family life, social unrest, increasingly complex cases, and the effects of COVID-19, and you can see why morale, recruitment, and retention challenges plague public safety departments across the country.

Thankfully, there is a shift in thinking within the public safety community. A survey and analysis done by the FirstNet Health and Wellness Coalition found that first responders want to address their health and wellness risk factors.

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New Hampshire has been at the forefront of this effort. In May 2022, 150 first responders from across New England came together at the University of New Hampshire to discuss first responder health and wellness at the New England FirstNet Summit. Officers and command staff sat together and engaged with experts in mental health, posttraumatic growth, stress management and more, learning about techniques, resources and organizations that can assist public safety agencies.

This May, the Dunbarton Police Department will follow up on last year’s summit with a regional training with All Clear Foundation, in collaboration with AT&T and FirstNet, the nationwide public safety communications network.

The need extends to first responders at every level, especially those in charge. Across numerous surveys and organizations, one recommendation consistently appears: leaders must be engaged. First responders want their supervisors to demonstrate and model behaviors of mental health and wellness practices, rather than just talk about them.

Organizations that collaborate top to bottom in healthy endeavors and are vocal about their importance, erase stigma and build a sense of community, belonging, and resilience. And that proactive approach is critical for recruitment and retention.

May marks Mental Health Awareness Month, a chance to recognize the need for more robust health and wellness services for New Hampshire’s first responders. But regardless of what month it is, we must prioritize support for our public safety heroes in every aspect of the job, at every level. In doing so, we can create an open environment that builds better, safer departments and inspires a new generation of first responders to answer the call.

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