The Agony of the First Responder

What happened in Orlando was horrific, but public-safety personnel experience traumatic events every day. We need to find ways to help them cope.
June 16, 2016
By Samuel Johnson Jr.  |  Contributor
Senior managing director for Mangfold Group LLC and a former Baltimore police officer

Last weekend's slaughter at an Orlando, Fla., nightclub took the lives of 49 people and left dozens more wounded. Thankfully, none of the police officers or other first responders who dealt with this horrific event, including those who exchanged fire with and killed the gunman, were seriously injured. But while a scene like this isn't the norm, it should serve to raise awareness of the trauma that America's first responders see on a daily basis in their communities.

Every day, these individuals are called to the scenes of drug overdoses, blood-soaked vehicle collisions, homicides, suicides and unspeakable crimes against children. The number of serious injuries and deaths that are witnessed by these professionals is unnatural, and it's no surprise that it takes a toll on their psyches. As a young police officer, it was on my fourth day out of the academy when the call came in for a man with a gunshot wound. The images of the victim and the chaos surrounding the incident will forever be embedded in my mind. Scenes like those became all too common with every day on patrol over the next five years.

For most first responders, the only therapy available to deal with the continuous traumatic stress of witnessing the ills of society is dialogue with colleagues. Mental-health professionals encourage these types of interactions as a way for first responders to communicate and express what they've experienced, and they caution against bottling up emotions and not sharing them. But while these conversations are certainly helpful, they don't provide a mechanism for fully managing the stressors associated with continually being put back in the same environments.

Many first responders don't ask for help because it goes against the culture of their profession. There is a mindset and image that is taught to first responders: Once you put on the uniform, you're supposed to act strong and courageous. Offer help, but don't ever ask for help. Asking for help is seen as making you appear weak, and it lessens the heroic image of the person, the profession and what it represents.

Too often, first responders who need help beyond the counsel of their colleagues have no recourse due to the lack of resources provided by their organizations. In many cases these professionals turn to alternative means, in the form of substance abuse, of coping with the continuous traumatic stress that they witness. And when the stressors become too unbearable, some cases end in suicide. While there is no official source that tracks these deaths, it's estimated that in 2015 more than a hundred U.S. law-enforcement personnel, and an even higher number of fire/EMS personnel, committed suicide.

There's certainly a role for public-safety personnel to play. To prevent the next suicide attempt, we must all be vigilant of any signs or changes in the attitudes or behaviors of our colleagues. When people are exhibiting practices that are out of their character, we must have the courage to engage with them to get to the root causes of their behavioral changes and get them the help that they need.

From an organizational perspective, we must change the culture of the profession to recognize the continuous traumatic stress that first responders experience and create a system to regularly rotate people out of those environments. This would provide immediate mental relief and the opportunity for individuals to regroup psychologically. The last thing we need among our first responders, the people who must deal with situations like the one that unfolded in Orlando, is no alternative to substance abuse and suicide.