Exposing the Mental Health Stigma Among First Responders

By Chief Michael Lanning

Personally, I find the stigma surrounding mental illness to be one of — if not the — most destructive stigmas affecting humans today. But this article is more specifically about how that stigma affects those who work in the emergency services industry. I believe the best place to begin is with my own vulnerability. After all, how can I expect others to follow my lead without some vulnerability re-counting my own experience and struggle with mental illness.

I will be the first to admit that before my own experience with mental disorders, I did not give the subject much thought. In so few words, I was uninformed to the true epidemic that plagues so many people worldwide. Suicide was a word I had heard many times growing up, but it was often thought of as just a cry for attention. So naturally, I developed a very incorrect and damaging opinion of that word and those that complete the fatal act. That was until I lost my father on March 9th, 2013. 

Having been raised by a single father who was both a veteran in the US Navy and a firefighter, the loss I experienced was catastrophic, to say the least. My father allowed his darkness to overwhelm him, and it ultimately resulted in his completing the act of suicide. My father had previous diagnoses of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Bipolar Disorder, but he was part of another generation that taught him to deal with pain and feelings in private, which ultimately contributed to his demise. 

Naturally, the days and weeks to follow crept on, appearing today to have all been a blur. But I was told my father was “too weak for this world,” his actions were “those of a coward,” and that he was “selfish.” Of course, I contemplated whether these words from friends and loved ones were true. In the months that followed, I became consumed by my own darkness, which I feel must have been very similar to my father’s. I battled the thoughts in my head for as long as I felt that I could. After a few months of dealing with my own demons, I decided it was my time to leave this world. 

I will be the first to say, through the entire process of spiraling out of control, my loved ones never left my mind. I didn’t want to leave them behind and I certainly did not want to die, but I felt I had no other option. I believed that no one would understand what my mind was telling me and that I would not be looked at the same if I asked for help. So, one day, I sat on my bed and wrote my suicide note for my lovely wife and our infant son. I wanted to assure them that my suicide was not because of them, but that it was because I was exhausted from the continuous battle within my own mind. Luckily, my actions that day weren’t successful, and I was woken up that afternoon to see my wife’s face and hold my son.

Since that day, I have transformed the feelings of shame and loneliness into a force to be reckoned with, a personal pledge to fight not only my own demons but also to help all those who are struggling find positive ways to battle their demons as well. It is important to understand common myths about suicide. For example, the myth that those who take their own lives are cowards or weak. If anything, it is the exact opposite. An example is Meriwether Lewis, of the famed Lewis and Clark Expeditions. Using his story is especially important because it brings further light to the issues associated with mental illness. Just as an iceberg only presents part of itself to the human eye, the same was evident in Lewis. There were so many people who did not know about him, but more specifically, about his struggle with mental illness. Their two-year journey took them into a mysterious world, and they faced countless difficulties. The decision to do this took great strength and courage. So, one would unquestionably say these men were heroic and brave. But Meriwether Lewis is said to have completed suicide, and even was quoted as saying “I am not a coward, but I am so strong. So hard to die.” 

Another example that debunks these common myths is the account of Holocaust Survivors. Research has found that suicide rates in the concentration camps and amongst those who were liberated are arguably the highest in human history. One cannot rightfully argue that these victims were weak or cowards. They survived years of oppression and violence against their race, only to eventually fall by their own hand in some cases.

I believe the myths associated with mental illness and suicide are a direct result of a lack of education and awareness. The reality is that those who attempt, or successfully complete suicide, often don’t truly want to die. Once a person becomes habituated to painful and fearsome events, they become fearless and less bothered by the idea of pain. A mixture of that fearlessness, along with the false perception of a burden they don’t want to impose on others, accompanied with what they think of as the stigma in our society that undervalues a person suffering from mental illness, all combine to elevate the risk for suicide. The important thing to remember is that these are all falsehoods. They are just the individual’s misperception.

All emergency services personnel are exposed to destructive events more often than the public. We are expected to return to the station and continue doing our duties as if nothing ever happened. Many believe that these issues can be compartmentalized and stored away to never be dealt with. Doing so results in maladaptive coping patterns such as substance abuse and often becoming disconnected from loved ones and reality. Our jobs and the things we see in the process of performing our duties aren’t going to change, and we have little control over what we will experience. However, what each of us do have control over is the way we react and process what our eyes and minds see and feel. We must learn positive coping strategies.

The stigma associated with mental illness prevents help-seeking. We must not be embarrassed by an illness that can occur as naturally in the human body as cancer or heart disease. Agencies need to step forward and debunk the common misperception that admitting you’re struggling or need help is a career-ending move. If we avoid open discussion about mental health, we are further isolating individuals and helping them believe the lie that they are alone in their battle. It is time for us to break the chains and stigma associated with mental health concerns and mental health disorders. Vulnerability begins with us, and together we will bring forth change and raise awareness about the issue of mental health. We owe it to all the brothers and sisters we’ve already lost; we must honor and celebrate their lives. Who knows, the life you save by talking about mental illness may be one of your own brothers or sisters.

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