Firefighters are exposed to traumatic and life-threatening situations on a regular basis as part of their jobs. The nature of this particular career choice is highly stressful and has additional elements of long working hours, broken sleep patterns, the possibility of losing a colleague, and of course encountering tragedies on a day to day basis. It has been suggested that firefighters are experiencing PTSD at similar rates to combat veterans. Although the trauma they experience is different from the horrors of a warzone, they are no less damaging to a firefighter's mental state. The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA) estimates that only 40% of firefighter suicides are actually reported. That means that if this estimate is accurate, the number of suicides among firefighters in 2017 would have been approximately 257 - more than double the number of firefighters who died in the line of duty!
- It has been suggested that anywhere between 7% and 37% of firefighters meet the current criteria for a PTSD diagnosis
- One study shows that female firefighters are particularly at risk with 20% suffering from PTSD and 30% admitting to suicidal ideation
- 80% of the firefighters who responded to a University of Phoenix study said that they had been exposed to a traumatic event in the line of duty
One law enforcement story that gives some true insight into what first responders have to deal with is that of Ken Dillon, a Connecticut State Trooper who served as a first responder at the tragic Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre. He recently shared his story with the Washington Post. Ken is a first responder with 30 years on the job as a State Trooper, Paramedic and volunteer firefighter. He states that even now, years after the incident he is suffering from PTSD. He describes how small things such as the smell of pizza can trigger a traumatic response. Why pizza? During the incident, trays of pizza were left out on the counter of the school cafeteria. As time went on, the pizza began to rot and the smell, mixed with the smell of blood from the scene soon became a symbol of evil in Ken's mind. His PTSD from the massacre resulted in him abusing alcohol and eventually the breakdown of his marriage. Unfortunately, Ken's story is all too common and a growing number of first responders are struggling with PTSD, addiction, depression and other psychological trauma.
- Over 90% of Police and EMTs have reported being exposed to a traumatic event (Source: University of Phoenix)
- On average, police officers witness 188 critical incidents during their careers (Source)
- According to Blue H.E.L.P. the number of Police suicides surpassed the number of law enforcement officers who died in the line of duty for 3 consecutive years between 2016 and 2018
EMTs and Paramedics may be the 'boots on the ground' when it comes to handling traumatic emergencies, but one group of first responders who cannot be overlooked is the dispatchers who send them to these situations. Psychology Today, shared the story of Gail, a Toronto based 911 dispatcher who described finding herself in tears at work after handling a call regarding a 3-year-old who had fallen 17 floors from an apartment block to his death. She was later diagnosed with PTSD and still finds herself struggling with memories of the child's distraught mother. It is easy to forget that dispatchers have to deal with these situations just as much as other first responders. They are often called upon to make difficult decisions regarding prioritizing emergency calls and may even be required to talk callers through tough situations while they wait for help arriving. At times, they are required to follow set protocols for handling calls even when the situation is hopeless. In Gail's case she recalls instructing the mother on how to perform CPR on her child, knowing that it was already too late, but being required to do so as part of standard protocol. This can take an incredible emotional toll on an individual over time.
- In a study involving over 4000 emergency responders, it was revealed that first responders are 10 times more likely to an average person
- Studies show that 911 dispatchers are more likely to meet the criteria for avoidance-related and intrusive symptoms of PTSD than combat veterans
There is a growing number of emergency room and trauma nursing staff who are suffering from stress-related illnesses brought on by their jobs. Not only are depression and PTSD prevalent, but there are also growing concerns regarding Secondary Traumatic Stress, Compassion Fatigue, and Vicarious Trauma. Emergency Medical staff and trauma teams are exposed to work-related traumatic events on a regular basis with many stating the death of a child or adolescent is one of the most traumatizing for them. All too often these medical staff are being expected to just shake it off and move to the next patient which means they are never really being allowed to deal with the emotions appropriately. It is estimated that around 1 in 3 emergency nurses meet sub-clinical levels of anxiety and depression and 8.5% have experienced PTSD symptoms.
- A peer-led survey has revealed that 37% of EMS providers have contemplated suicide, almost 10 times the national average as published by the CDC. The same survey found 6.6% had actually made an attempt on their own life compared with just 0.5% of the general population
- Two in every ten emergency room nurses will experience the symptoms of PTSD after being involved in a major disaster according to research
- 1 in 3 emergency nurses meet sub-clinical levels for depression and anxiety according to one study
When most people think about PTSD, military personnel are some of the first sufferers that come to mind. Considering the horrific things an active military serviceman or woman has to deal with it doesn't come as a surprise that there is a higher rate of PTSD and depression among the military. On average, 8% of the general American population will experience PTSD at some stage in their lives, but for military personnel, the figure is closer to 20%. Government employees can also be at an increased risk of mental illness due to traumatic events as they may be called upon to deal with situations that they are not specifically trained for in the event of an emergency situation.