Do we need to change our starting point?
I was given the opportunity to speak with 1st year First Responder students on the issue of mental health. The message that they gave to me was that mental illness is not to be discussed. I was appalled. This is occurring in spite of all the training that is now in place, the large amount of media coverage, and the unforgiving increase in our friends who have lost their lives. And, despite the recent media coverage is showing there is a startling increase in first responder suicide. That might lead some to believe that this approach isn’t working as planned.
So, do we need then to change our starting point when it comes to First Responder mental wellness and education? After my visit, it is glaringly evident that we need to take this message even further back in our careers, back to our educational foundations.
It has been a long while since I have been under the pressure of looming deadlines in a barrage of testing, exams, presentations, and assignments. But, the scarring nature of the academic race isn’t wholly forgotten. But, I am getting the sense that the academic administrations are looking at this stress and pressure as the necessary resiliency training for their future stress experiences. Categorically this is unhelpful. And while I don’t think these academic pressures are going anywhere, treating them as similar or as a training ground for future traumatic stress resiliency is wrong as well.
Clinically, this poses a major philosophical issue. It reflects the philosophical beliefs of the services at large. If the services were wholly and entirely positioned to offer the best mental wellness programming that they possibly could, if they were to introduce non-judgmental treatment of their members who step from the shadows to feel the light on their struggles, we would not have this messaging happening within our academic institutions.
Moreover, this is priming them to believe in contradicting messaging. How should one navigate the nefarious position of spending their first few years in competition, trying to secure careers with the consistent messaging that if you have a mental illness you have no place in this field, with the potential struggle of mental illness down the road. I think the majority of us would experience confusion at best, and this is not a proactive or positive approach.
Mental wellness is not an all-or-nothing factor. As I repeat ad nauseam, specific factors play a potential role in the development of a mental concern. AND, this does not necessarily equate to post-traumatic issues either. But, with this continued prophetic messaging that mental illness is in some way a weakness, we are undermining all the evidence, research, and realities of the job. But, this simple statement is a biting, gnawing distruth that continues to permeate the services. What a more effective way to ensure that mental wellness is stunted than to provide a message to students early on that counters the larger organizational wishes. At that point, the new hire has to make a decision: Is what I was told leading up to my hiring true, or is what the organization seems to be saying true? When it is both your passion and your career potentially on the line, this isn’t an easy gamble.
The messaging here also carries with it the clear stamp of stigma. The misunderstanding and misattribution assigned is due to the cultural beliefs that still hold strong in the First Responder field. Simply Google “first responder” and images of heroic feats plaster your screen. After all, the idea of this is what draws many of us to want to grow up to be in the field. But, the reality is, as those of us who have lived it understand, this is not accurate. Our wish to avoid disrupting this image continues to propagate these other issues that are literally destroying our lives.
Further, we have a responsibility to these newcomers to take care of them. They will have families as we do and those families are relying on us to get this right. The message is clear – this role comes with heavy baggage that can potentially impact on us and our families in profound ways. We have no briefcase to let the paperwork of our day hide in between our bouts at the office. We have long days, long weeks, and the images and activities that we perform are emblazoned into our psyches. Let us ensure that those who come after us are better able to mitigate the impact and able to increase their mental wellbeing and resilience.
So are we starting at the wrong place?
We as educators need to teach and educate in a way that demonstrates our understanding of the current research, current organizational and political alignments on the issue, and in a way that will benefit our students meaningfully when they are done. A poor litmus test is the one that utilizes the inherent pressures of student life and academic requirements as whether someone can “hack” it in the field. A good litmus test is instead to see if the students can come together to create a community that will provide support and understanding.
Is the final question here on how to incite changes in the academic atmosphere when we are in the service working? If it is, the answer presents itself as equally as simple. The academic arena will follow suit to the working, organizational beliefs. If we are in the service, we can create and nurture a demonstrably inclusive attitude. The requirement here is it needs to be demonstrable. We need to show proof that speaking up about struggles that arise is not just ok, but encouraged. When we can begin to show that struggling with calls can sometimes be the inevitable outcome of the role, our folks will be more likely to speak up about it. And, if they speak up they also start a conversation.
This conversation is the exact tool necessary combat stigma, judgments, old ways of thinking, and to develop atmospheres that will then be reflected in the academia that our newcomers graduate from. We need to shift our focus to include the student body as well.