Commentary Editor’s Note: This article, part of our New Voices collection, was written by a first-time Star Tribune opinion contributor. See for more information about our efforts to continuously expand the scope of our publications startup.com/opinion/newvoices.
Have you seen the statistics on mental health since covid started? It’s terrifying. There was one 25% increased. As of March 2020, worldwide in anxiety and depression. If ever there was a time to normalize conversations about mental health, now is the time.
This is especially true among the first responders who serve our communities every day. As a psychologist who has spent 15 years working with people with serious problems, I have the privilege of helping some of Minnesota’s best public safety professionals.
Most of us cannot truly understand the internal devastation of working as first responders, including the impact on their families. Overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, and visual experiences of the calls they respond to, first responders accumulate stress and trauma. Changes in brain function. Their nervous system is stuck in overdrive. The lack of sleep and the physical demands of their job make it an uphill battle to re-establish. Trauma contributes to diseases and affects relationships, because a person is more active, irritable and impulsive, suffering emotionally and physically.
We know that first responders have high rates of stress-related conditions such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, and substance abuse. Those situations can lead to suicidal thoughts. First responders die earlier than the rest of us (on average approx 20 years).
Service calls are on the rise, and recruitment and retention are down. Departments are short on required part-time staff. Simply put, first responders are doing with less. The perception, and sometimes the reality, of declining public support has led many in the field to take pride in their work, which is tied to their service value, self-esteem, and financial security. It also risks a self-fulfilling prophetic coolness. “If I don’t go to work, who will be there for the defenseless victims?” asks an officer.
Most of Minnesota’s 40,000 public safety professionals are motivated by a deep desire to care for others. They are trained in how to do their jobs but rarely in how to take care of themselves. This must change, and it starts with compassion and dialogue.
It’s about looking for people who care for us. It starts with local and state leaders normalizing the conversation around mental health, investing in education and treatment, and understanding the experiences of our first responders. Supporting the mental health of our first responders has a direct impact on the outcomes we want for our community. When we stop cultivating compassion for those who suffer, our society suffers.
How can you help normalize conversations about mental health?
Kerry Fowle, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and owner of Fowle Psychological in Eagan.