Role Reversal: When Our Rescuers Need Help
As a survivor of a group armed robbery and abduction, I know how trauma changes your life. I was a clothing store manager thrust into a chaotic situation, which involved a customer having a medical emergency.
The adept 9-1-1 dispatcher kept me calm amid the chaos and talked me through how to help the woman until police officers arrived and took over. I remember the feeling of relief flushing over me, thinking the real rescuers and protectors are here now.
My story is a testament as to why we need our law enforcement and first responders and why they need our help in return. First responders — firefighters, emergency medical technicians, police officers, paramedics, 9-1-1 dispatchers and active duty military — are chronically exposed to stress and traumatic scenes. They wake up never knowing what dangers or rewards await.
They deal with chaos and trauma on the job and then they go home and try to normalize.
The incidence of first responders developing behavioral health issues outpaces that of the general public. According to “Psychiatric Times,” about 30% of first responders develop behavioral health conditions, including depression and PTSD, whereas about 20% of the general population is affected. Firefighters were reported to have higher suicide attempt and ideation rates than the general population. And in law enforcement, between 125 and 300 police officers are reported to have committed suicide every year.
These staggering statistics must be addressed. But how? The first step is awareness. Part of why I created and host the “I Need Blue” podcast (https://ineedblue.net/) is to spread awareness through the sharing of lived experiences from everyday people and first responders.
For example, I interviewed Erika Unberhagen, a 16-year veteran law enforcement officer whose career ended four years after being honored as Officer of the Year in the fifth largest county in Texas due to alcohol use disorder and undiagnosed PTSD. She struggled for over 13 years. That struggle resulted in divorce, the loss of her children, her career, her self-respect, her desire to live, and eventually led to homelessness.
She is now in recovery for nine years. Eventually, she found the help she needed and is now a licensed therapist and chemical dependency counselor at Windmill Wellness Ranch in Texas.
“I realized true strength lies in asking for help, it's having the courage to do that,” the veteran law enforcement officer said.
Asking for help can be the hardest part of anyone's healing journey, especially for those who are trained to help others. Mental health comes with a stigma, but when we view a first responder with a mental health challenge, the stigma grows and often prevents someone from reaching out for help. But this stigma is starting to change as more people speak out and organizations implement new training and provide more resources.
How do we continue to change the stigma? Talk about it, create a safe space for sharing and provide mental health resources like licensed therapists, church personnel, etc. for someone to talk to. Provide tools during the training process to recognize the signs of PTSD, depression and suicidal ideations. Many first responders won’t come forward for fear of losing their job, thus creating that safe space is so important.
Encouraging to see is in December 2021, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ wife, Casey DeSantis, partnered with Florida Department of Children and Families to expand peer-to-peer mental health services available for first responders, to bolster existing prevention and intervention services for first responders and their families.
We don’t know what a first responder just witnessed or the scars they carry inside. But as we increase awareness surrounding first responders’ mental health, we can help them heal. As their family members, neighbors, co-workers and community, we can be the emergency dispatcher who picks up the call when they need help.
Thank you to the first responders locally and around the world who wake up each day to protect us.
WhyISurvived.com, in which Jen recalls four personal experiences of suspense, suspicion, and survival that ultimately lead to her life purpose of helping other survivors.
Thought Leader Bio
Jennifer Lee is the creator and host of the “I Need Blue” podcast based on her experience of surviving an armed robbery and abduction. The podcast serves as a platform for survivors of “life” events to share their stories. “I Need Blue” is where survivors feel they Belong, are Loved, Understood and Empowered.