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Changing Organizational Culture to Improve Mental Health

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By Allison G. S. Knox, faculty member at American Military University 

There has been a lot of discussion lately about ensuring mental health coverage for law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, paramedics, and others employed in public safety professions. Hopefully, these discussions and policy changes will force the restructuring of local-level budgets and create a more compassionate workplace for public safety personnel.

[Related: How I Learned to Process Trauma in My Policing Career]

While policy changes are a major catalyst for creating a better environment for public safety personnel who need mental healthcare, there are other factors to consider. One of these factors is how to create cultural changes within a department, agency, and the first responder field.

Several articles have noted that there are toxic environments within the public safety industry, and such cultures do not provide a supportive environment for individuals who seek help.

[Related: How Company Officers Can Become Better Counselors and Comrades]

As a result, it is particularly important for agencies and departments to revisit their own organizational cultures and take a hard look at themselves. Culture and policy must go hand-in-hand if the appropriate changes to create better mental healthcare for public safety professionals is going to be effective, particularly where policies surrounding post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are concerned.

Sociological Literature Offers Guidance on Creating an Organizational Culture

Sociological literature is rich with scholarly articles that focus on organizational theory and culture, highlighting specific ways that individuals and groups of people interact within organizations, communities, and different types of professions. Researchers Bernard Bass and Bruce Avolio note that “The organization’s culture develops in large part from its leadership, while the culture of an organization can also affect the development of its leadership.”

Culture is a major component of organizations, affecting both individuals and groups. Understanding the importance of organizational culture is a major component of pushing through policies.

The Problems with Public Safety Culture

Creating a positive and supportive organizational culture is essential for first responder organizations to make appropriate policy changes for employees who need mental healthcare. Without this type of culture, tragedies can occur.

In Fairfax, Virginia, for example, a firefighter named Nicole Mittendorff committed suicide after experiencing cyberbullying. After her tragic death, the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department had an independent study conducted and found that there were significant cultural problems within the department.4

[Related: How Strong Leadership Can Create a Healthier Firehouse Culture]

Another article published by Dalton Rice in the “Journal of Emergency Medical Services” also highlights that there are cultural problems within emergency medical services that affect employee retainment. Rice notes that some paramedics will continue to change departments, because they don’t like the environment of a particular agency.

Creating a Supportive Internal Environment

Where PTSD legislation is concerned, changing organizational cultures will be a major effort for public safety agencies.

While most first responder services do not tolerate the notion of bullying, a department that has this kind of behavior within it will fail to properly support individuals who seek assistance with mental health issues. It should become a priority for all first responder agencies to ensure their personnel receive mental healthcare when needed.

Without a supportive environment, policy changes will not be particularly effective in helping public safety professionals to get the care that they need within a department. That’s especially true if the legislation is set up as a workers’ compensation claim.

[Related: States Need Clearer Laws on PTSD Compensation Claims for First Responders]

Public safety agencies have long experienced problems with obtaining adequate budgets for purchasing vital equipment. Adding mental health services to budgets may prove to be difficult, but an important first step is to first build a supportive environment for individual workers who need to file mental health workers’ compensation claims.

About the Author: An emergency medical technician and a political scientist, Allison focuses on Emergency Management and Emergency Medical Services policy. Allison has taught at the undergraduate level since 2010. Prior to teaching at American Military University, Allison worked in a level-one trauma center emergency department and for a member of Congress in Washington, D.C. She holds four master’s degrees in Emergency Management, National Security Studies, and International Relations, and History; a Graduate Certificate in Homeland Security; and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. She serves on the Board of Trustees for Pi Gamma Mu International Honor Society and also serves as the Advocacy Coordinator of Virginia for the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians. To contact the author, email For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.

Allison G. S. Knox teaches in the fire science and emergency management departments at American Military University and American Public University. Focusing on emergency management and emergency medical services policy, she often writes and advocates about these issues. Allison serves as an Intermittent Emergency Management Specialist with the Department of Health and Human Services, as At-Large Director of the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians and as Chancellor of the Southeast Region on the Board of Trustees with Pi Gamma Mu International Honor Society in Social Sciences. She is also chair of Pi Gamma Mu’s Leadership Development Program. Prior to teaching, Allison worked for a member of Congress in Washington, D.C. and in a Level One trauma center emergency department. She is an emergency medical technician and holds multiple graduate degrees.

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