It’s our duty to address first responders’ mental health & wellness (Guest Opinion by Anna Fitch Courie)

Anna Fitch Courie, a Doctor of Nursing Practice and registered nurse certified in public health, is the Director of Responder Wellness for the FirstNet Program at AT&T. She is based in Columbia, South Carolina. FirstNet is a nationwide emergency communications network created by Congress after the 9/11 terror attacks. AT&T built FirstNet through a public-private partnership.

Not all superheroes wear capes. In fact, many wear scrubs, paramedic uniforms, dispatch headsets, fireproof jackets and badges. We saw this during the pandemic as first responders braved the risk of COVID infection to protect our neighbors during one of the most challenging periods of our lives. These remarkable women and men run toward danger rather than away from it. While they never think of themselves as heroes, to many they are. But they are also human and can be deeply impacted by the life-changing, dangerous, and traumatic situations they confront on a daily basis.

As National Mental Health Awareness Month, May also recognizes first responders with Emergency Medical Services Week, Nurses Week, Correctional Officer Week, Police Week, and Firefighters Day, making it a perfect opportunity to raise awareness about the mental health challenges our first responders face and encourage everyone to lend support to those who give so much.

Most people can’t understand the stressors first responders encounter during the emergencies they handle on a day-to-day basis. Compared to the general population, first responders experience higher rates of depression, post-traumatic stress, burnout, anxiety and other mental health issues. It is estimated that more than one-third of first responders deals with mental health struggles. One study found law enforcement officers have a more than 20-year difference in life expectancy compared to the average American male, while another revealed that first responders are more likely to die from suicide than in line of duty. Even before the pandemic, up to 1 in 4 first responders were estimated to experience post-traumatic stress.

These staggering statistics and the impacts of the pandemic are just some of the reasons why public safety agencies are focusing more on first responder health and wellness. The FirstNet Health & Wellness Coalition, a health and wellness program of AT&T for first responders, brings together more than two dozen member organizations that represent more than 5.1 million first responders and frontline healthcare workers to support first responders’ mental health. Its priorities include post-traumatic stress, depression and self-harm, physical fitness, resilience, and family member and leadership engagement.

FirstNet was born by the vision of Congress and the first responder community following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which dramatically affected first responders in New York City and across the state. As a public safety’s communications partner, FirstNet is committed to being there for first responders, and recognizing the need for a diverse array of mental health supports, services, tools, and resources is part of that mission.

For chiefs, administrators, and agency heads, it is never too late to launch departmental initiatives and trainings that support your employees’ health and wellness.

In New York, FirstNet and AT&T are working with the New York State Sheriffs Association to develop and launch a statewide health and wellness program. Set to launch this summer, the program is just one of the programs FirstNet and AT&T are supporting across the state and the nation to help first responders manage the stressful and traumatic situations they face every day. Raising awareness, highlighting these challenges, and providing resources are critical steps towards changing the unwarranted stigma around first responder mental health.

This month, and every month, let’s all work together to make it normal to seek help. Let’s develop open environments that encourage conversation about mental health, especially for first responders. This is the least we can do for our first responders — our superheroes.

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