Depression Among First Responders

August 8, 2014

Everyone else is running away from the fire, but you’re charging right into it. Gunfire rings out in a crowded store and people scatter, but you run toward the sound of the shots. You are the bravest among us — first responders facing danger to keep others safe. But who is looking out for you and your emotional wellbeing?

While most of society deals with the fight or flight response on a rather limited basis, for first responders like police officers, firefighters and other emergency personnel it can happen on almost a daily basis. The psychological toll that prolonged stress takes on first responders varies widely, but can often be long-lasting and come in the form of depression.

Symptoms of Depression

Depression manifests itself differently in every individual but as a whole it can affect one’s ability to work, sleep, eat and enjoy once pleasurable activities. Symptoms of depression can include:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and/or helplessness
  • Irritability, restlessness
  • Loss of interest in pleasurable activities, including sex
  • Fatigue and decreased energy
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details and making decisions
  • Sleep issues including insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
  • Overeating or appetite loss
  • Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
  • Persistent aches or pains, headaches or other physical distress

First responders are often at a greater risk of suffering from depression than other professions because of both the nature of their jobs and the culture in which they operate. The whole “suck-it-up tough guy” image of first responders can hinder individuals who are suffering in silence to get the help they need.

Resources are available for those who may be suffering and not know where to turn for help. Admitting there may be an issue is the first step. Talking to a supervisor or chaplain about these issues can also facilitate the healing process. To address the growing need for behavioral health support and resources, American Addiction Centers has created a program aimed at helping law enforcement officers and their families. This dedicated hotline is available at 1.855.99.POLICE (765423). Additionally, the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) has launched Share the Load™, a support program for firefighters and EMS. As part of that program, the NVFC has partnered with American Addiction Centers to create the Fire/EMS Helpline, a free, confidential helpline available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to assist firefighters, EMTs and their families. Callers receive compassionate, non-judgmental support for a variety of behavioral health issues, such as PTSD, addiction, depression, suicide prevention, stress or anxiety, critical incidents, relationship issues, or other issues affecting their work or personal life. The helpline is available at 1-888-731-FIRE (3473).

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