First responders face mental health struggles after responding to traumatic events

First Responders, like those who came to the rescue following the deadly train accident in DuPont, often times face mental health challenges.

The University of Phoenix surveyed 2,000 firefighters, police officers, paramedics and nurses about their mental health. They found that the majority -- 85 percent -- of these first responders have experienced symptoms.

“There are real consequences that could cause-effect what happened because of your job and reaching out for help,” said Samantha Dutton, Ph.D., Social Sciences Program Director at the University of Phoenix.

Given what they do on a daily basis, it’s not surprising that 84 percent of these first responders say they’ve experienced traumatic events while on the job.

"Shock and fear and adrenaline rushing, those are all pretty normal," said Dutton. "It’s when you have abnormal things that show up later such as not sleeping, not eating, not handing out with friend, if you’re drinking too much.”

Seeking help

Only 34 percent have had a formal diagnosis of a mental health disorder, like depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Researchers say it shows that mental health services offered by organizations are not being fully utilized by these workers.

“If you had a broken leg, would you not go to the hospital?" asked Dutton. “If there’s no conversation about what it’s like to have an issue or have symptoms of PTSD or depression or if there’s not an open conversation about that, you don’t know the difference between a broken leg and a paper cut because they both hurt."

The survey found that 75 percent of the people who received a formal diagnosis of PTSD have received treatment.

Twenty-seven percent of people were diagnosed with depression and of those, 47 percent say their depression was caused by incidents they dealt with at work.

According to Dutton, these issues are treatable. "PTSD is treatable. Depression is treatable. It’s getting over the stigma of asking for the treatment, getting better, and then getting back in the game.”

And while a majority have access to help, many aren’t taking advantage of it.

Sixty-nine percent of those asked say mental health services are seldom or never used.

Why is that?

First responders say there remains a stigma to people who admit to having mental health problems.

They say supervisors have treated them differently when they bring up mental health conditions. Almost one-in-four say there are negative repercussions for people looking to get help at work.

Starting the conversation

Dutton believes there needs to be more of a national conversation about mental health, not just for first responders. She says there’s not a person in the United States who isn’t touched in some way by mental health issues, whether it’s their own or a family member.

For first responders, she suggests that superiors discuss mental health with those who serve under them by telling their own stories. Dutton says showing that it’s ok to talk about it, more people will feel comfortable about opening up.

While she served in the military, Dutton says one leader opened up, and it helped.

“I wouldn’t keep people out of my door. There were people in my office lined up. Once they realize their leader did this, it was all great. They wanted to get the help too,” said Dutton.

If you or a loved one is dealing with depression or other mental health issues, reach out to your insurance company to find out what kind of services are available to you.

Dutton says often times, simply being aware of the problem is the first step in the recovery process.