First Responders Feel There Are Repercussions for Seeking Help

When I was a little girl, my grandmother’s best friend had cancer. Everyone whispered the word “cancer.” It was as if you might get it yourself if you said it out loud. Fast forward to today and our professional football players devote a whole month to wearing pink for breast cancer. It is ordinary and normal unlike 40 years ago when was taboo to speak the word.


But when it comes to mental health, especially in certain professions, there is still a stigma about mental illness no one talks about. Recently, University of Phoenix released its third annual first responder’s survey finding more than half of first responders (57 percent) feel that there would be repercussions on the job for seeking professional counseling. This represents a 10 percent increase over research conducted in 2018, where 47 percent felt there were repercussions. The alarming results show despite our efforts in the media and the mental health field to normalize mental health, many first responders face workplace barriers that could prevent them from seeking professional counseling.

First responders are often seen as heroes to their community, and rightly so, as they put their lives on the line serving others. But the label hero comes with its own set of pressures as heroes never complain or show weakness. Our heroes come from a culture where you keep quiet and just deal with it and traumatic situations are just part of the job. Unfortunately, keeping quiet almost always takes a toll on mental health and wellbeing. We need to provide a safe space where first responders can discuss mental health confidentially and without judgment or repercussions.

The survey suggests that many first responders do not feel that work is a safe place to discuss mental health. Among the 57 percent who feel there are repercussions for seeking counseling, 48 percent feel they would receive different treatment from supervisors and 35 percent think they would be perceived as weak by colleagues/peers.

Some who felt there were repercussions for seeking professional help cited career-limiting consequences. Among the top job repercussions perceived by first responders, 46 percent cited a change in job assignment and 37 percent believe they would be passed over for a promotion. Some of the repercussions cited were more dire, with 23 percent responding they may be demoted and 17 percent believing they could be fired.  

Whether on the job repercussions are perception or reality, we must ensure first responders can seek help without fear of jeopardizing their livelihood. That starts with supervisors having open and honest conversations about mental wellness and building a culture where it is OK to not be OK.

I truly believe that it takes a few people to be brave enough to share their story. It is especially helpful if those people are people in charge. When a leader can stand in front of his team and speak openly about mental health, it makes a difference. Mental well-being should be viewed the same as going to the doctor for a cold or sore throat. Smart leaders know that dealing with a cold is much better than dealing with pneumonia

The good news is that talking about mental health encourages change. One of the statistics that remained positive and consistent in our survey is that first responders are encouraged to seek counseling when others share their experience.

The survey found that first responders may be more open to getting help if those around them are willing to discuss mental health. If a leader in their organization spoke about their own experience, 71 percent say they would be encouraged to seek professional counseling. Peers have an even greater influence, with 83 percent of first responders saying if a close colleague, friend or family member spoke up, they would be encouraged to seek help for themselves.

That means all of us must continue to push the conversation to normalize mental health. Just as every person knows someone that has or had cancer, every person knows someone that is dealing with a mental illness. A healthy first responder is better equipped to respond to an emergency and to be healthy means both physical and mental health. We can all support our real-life heroes by sharing our stories and making it safe for them to share their stories.   

Dr. Samantha Dutton is Associate Dean and the Director of the Social Work Program in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, with University of Phoenix. She created the Bachelor of Science Social Work program which is currently in the accreditation process.Previous to this she held positions of Deputy Commander of Medical Operations at Mike O’Callaghan Military Medical Center as well as the Medical Squadron at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. She also commanded the Mental Health Clinic at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. Her military experience spans 27 years with increasing levels of leadership. She has been the recipient of numerous Air Force level awards and was deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom where she was the lone mental health practitioner for 2500 personnel.

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