5 Investigates: A Silent Crisis - First Responders and Mental Health

Published: Jun. 1, 2023 at 5:17 PM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

BRIDGEPORT, W.Va (WDTV) - West Virginia’s EMS agencies are facing serious challenges, from a lack of funding to dwindling volunteerism.

There are a lot of issues, and easy answers don’t appear to be on the horizon.

In this installment of A Silent Crisis, we’re taking a closer look at the connect between first responders and mental health.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and one of the largest growing issues is the near daily trauma and lack of support for the mental health of our first responders.

Throughout Dr. David Clayman’s many decades as a psychologist, he’s seen and heard a lot.

“Mental health is not taking a pill. It’s working to recognize that there are issues you have to deal with, and you might not have the tools for those issues,” said Dr. Clayman of Clayman and Assoc. Clinical and Forensic Psychology.

Much of Dr. Clayman’s work revolves around the mental health of law enforcement, but he says the culture first responders’ live in makes many of them wary to seek help. And those who do want help typically have to wait.

“If they’re brave enough to open up, then what am I left with? We have a mental health system we can get people into. I’m trying to get a fireman, a policeman in to see a colleague of mine, and he has to wait three more weeks. He can’t wait three weeks,” Dr. Clayman said.

That can make things worse when they’re at their tipping point.

Clayman says much of first responders’ trauma is built up over time. He says they’re normal people that have to deal with extreme situations of a constant basis.

“The symptoms that come with PTSD or distress over a heavy incident are more a sign of normalcy than a sign of being mentally ill. So when I see people, I don’t talk about them being mentally ill,” Dr. Clayman said.

Certain traumas can cause an emergency worker to respond in a way someone outside their experience may not.

Clayman says it’s important to recognize these normalizing behaviors.

“What happens to me is not unexpected. Every person has a different way in which we cope with stress, the perception of trauma, and everything else. It’s different but it’s expected given what you’ve been through,” said Dr. Clayman.

Clayman says first responders not only should keep in mind how they react to trauma but a “change off baseline”, meaning either a dramatic overreaction or underreaction to how they might normally react to a situation.

“However, if they suddenly aren’t the first one to take the ladder off the truck or jump off the cab of an ambulance, that’s change off baseline,” Dr. Clayman said.

While it’s important to notice behavioral changes in the department, Clayman says bringing in peer support groups from other departments can help them relate with personal experience but also help take some of the pressure off someone afraid of being judged by a coworker.

“By bringing somebody in from the outside who’s worthy of trust, that’s the big part. Then they can open up and say things they may not say otherwise,” Dr. Clayman said.

Clayman says many first responders also personalize the trauma they experience on the job.

When responding to a call, they may see something or someone that reminds them of a family member.

Clayman says this can create problems at home.

“A first responder has to go home, and if they get subtle stuff, I don’t want you to be a cop. I don’t want you to be a firefighter, EMT anymore. It’s ruining your life. When they say it’s ruining our lives, the intimacy changes. The weekends are not much fun, so you have to be super aware of it,” Dr. Clayman said.

Clayman says family members can experience second-hand trauma similar to a loved one who’s a police officer, firefighter, or EMT. He says they can benefit from family therapy too.

“If we don’t recog in any kind of situation where there’s stress and trauma that other people are affected by, the danger somebody else was put in, that’s naïve and we have never done it,” Dr. Clayman said.

Even though resources and experts may be limited, Clayman says not to let the stigma around mental health care deter someone who may need it.

Clayman says himself and many others in his field are grateful to be able to talk to and work with first responders.

“You become the educator to the therapist. I learn from every single one of the people I’ve seen from any level of the first responders, any of them have taught me something,” Dr. Clayman said.

Clayman says one of the many things he’s learned from his first responders is practicing mindfulness. He says practicing mindfulness goes along with taking first responders out of the intensity of their work.

“We have to teach people the appreciation for life, and that’s not being corny. How do you replenish your soul, how do you create resilience, and how do you look at mental health when you’re hurting, but how do you build it into your everyday life,” said Dr. Clayman.

There has been talk in the Legislature about first responders, even mental health, but many are afraid of it being abused.

Below are the first four installments of A Silent Crisis:

5 News Investigates: A Silent Crisis Pt. 1

5 News Investigates: A Silent Crisis - Buckhannon Fire Department

5 Investigates: A Silent Crisis - The Price of Training

5 Investigates: A Silent Crisis - Anmoore Fire & EMS