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The Need for Mental Health Services for Public Safety Workers

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By Allison G. S. Knox
Edge Contributor

With the increase in active shooter incidents, American society has changed over the last 25 years. While these incidents are horrifying and tragic, it is clear that more needs to be done to stop violent behavior by active shooters and soothe the general public. 

Active shooter incidents have also brought the focus on the importance of appropriate mental health care for Americans. It has highlighted the absolute need for public safety professionals to have regular access to mental health resources.

Active Shooter Incidents and the Need for Mental Health Services

Active shooter incidents have sparked discussions about the need for gun control and an increased emphasis on mental health professionals to prevent these incidents. It has also become quite clear, however, that public safety professionals have witnessed horrible life-and death situations throughout their careers and suffer mental trauma as a result.

Depending upon where a public safety worker resides in the United States, these traumatic experiences can happen on a daily basis. Seeing people in their worst moments – such as car accidents, traumatic amputations, cardiac arrest and drownings, just to name a few – can take a strong toll on someone who is just trying to help.

More importantly, if a public safety professional works in a busy community and has a 30-year career, the number of traumatic experiences that person suffers is exponential. For many communities, figuring out how to offer mental health services to the public safety workers is not only a serious challenge, but one that is desperately needed.

Legislation for Mental Health Care

A few state legislatures have recognized the need for mental health care and have created legislation to provide services to first responders and other public safety workers. For example, in Idaho, a bill was passed to allow for public safety professionals to have access to mental health services as a part of worker’s compensation.  

But the way this legislation is structured, it would suggest that this aid may be a rare thing for a first responder who needs mental health care. Not providing resources that are needed by public safety workers, however, is simply negligence on behalf of the community, the municipality or the agency that employs first responders.

Providing Mental Health Services to First Responders

For first responders, mental health care needs to be extensive and it needs to be offered on a regular basis. It also needs to be easily accessible and without a lot of stigma if individuals are to get the care that they need. Similarly, departmental culture needs to change extensively to support mental health care, which will lead to a more supportive environment for public safety workers who need mental health services.

Some public safety organizations have contemplated employing a dedicated mental health professional to help their personnel. Such a concept would certainly allow for public safety workers to have regular mental health care. But having a dedicated mental health provider would simply overwhelm that person, because there is too much need for mental health services.

The Cost of Offering Mental Health Services

There are also numerous problems with municipal budgets when it comes to emergency medical services. Providing a dedicated mental health professional to first responders may be simply beyond the finances of many departments. Ideally, offering regular access to mental health care for public safety professionals should be a part of the benefits offered to public safety employees. 

Many emergency managers conduct a frequent cost-benefit analysis of the various needs of their community and their department. Figuring out the risk is important because it helps to identify weaknesses in the community.

Ultimately, public safety professionals need the appropriate care to help them manage what they experience on a regular basis in order to prevent burnout. It is without question that mental health services should be provided to public safety workers at all times, and there should be no obstacles preventing public safety professionals from getting the care that they need, especially if they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The unfortunate reality for public safety workers is that there is a high need for mental health services, but low access to these services. As this issue is complicated, elected officials will need to prioritize it to make these services more accessible to first responders.

In our online bachelor of science in fire management program, I teach a course on fire regulation, policy and law (FSMT 410). Public policies such as the need for mental health services and other topics are discussed in this type of class.

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 the At-Large Director of the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians, Secretary & Chair of the TEMS Committee with the International Public Safety Association and as Chancellor of the Southeast Region on the Board of Trustees with Pi Gamma Mu International Honor Society in Social Sciences. Prior to teaching, she worked for a member of Congress in Washington, D.C. and in a Level One trauma center emergency department. Passionate about the policy issues surrounding emergency management and emergency medical services, Allison often researches, writes and advocates about these issues. Allison is an emergency medical technician and holds four master’s degrees.

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