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Elevating mental health in the EMS curriculum

The one thing all first responders have in common is that they are more focused on helping others rather than taking care of themselves

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“Unless you’ve rolled through the dark streets, highways and county roads during the witching hour, you can’t truly understand it,” writes Dan Phillips

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By Dan Phillips

Axl Rose and Guns N’ Roses called it “the Jungle.” German rocker Krause Meine and the Scorpions referred to it as “the Zoo.” There are various names for the streets that we roam throughout our careers as first responders, but one thing is certain – it’s a front row seat to the greatest show on earth.

Unless you’ve rolled through the dark streets, highways and county roads during the witching hour, you can’t truly understand it. What we see and experience in our careers is hard to describe to anyone outside of this job. We dwell in the underbelly of society, answering calls and responding to what is often the worst moments of people’s lives. But, we answer the calls because we truly believe in serving our communities.

It’s not just a job for most of us; it’s our ministry and calling. We love it, breathe it, thrive in it and train relentlessly for it. But how do we survive 25-30 years, day in and day out, encountering fear and darkness, and then transition every day back to our normal life as a spouse, parent or friend? It’s not easy, and for most, it’s uncommon to do so without some measure of heartache and trauma along the way.

I am incredibly fortunate because I am now happy and healthy. This wasn’t always the case. It took intensive, intentional and consistent work to get to the point where I am now. I still encounter issues, struggle with memories and cope with trauma, but my faith is still restoring in the process.

I’ve experienced moments of genuine fear in my career because of the circumstances I was facing, and seasons when I didn’t know if I would survive emotionally. We train from day one to be the best at our jobs, but most of us never train for the aftermath of a critical incident, loss of a coworker or sustained exposure to trauma. The dead bodies. The dead children. They add up.

Caring for past, present and future generations of EMS

So how do we make a cultural shift to move the needle for the next generation coming in behind us? Trauma on the field impacts not only us as responders, but our families and communities too. How do we change the rates of PTSD, suicide, divorce and addiction issues that plague our community? What can we do now for those of us who have just retired or are in the twilight of their career? How do we make sure the current and future academy classes and curriculum being taught include emotional survival, and that sustainment training throughout our tenure adequately reflects a focus on holistic wellness and not just specific tactics?

The simple answer is – it starts with you. If you are in a position of authority, as an elected or appointed official, or if you are on a national board, a retiree looking to give back, a leader over a division, or you’re simply trying to make an impact every day, then you are exactly the person who can make a difference to enact change and be a voice to influence others.

Emotional survival, resiliency and wellness are terminology that have slowly started to make their way into our jargon over the last 10 years. The one thing they all have in common is taking a holistic approach to ensuring there is education about and process for addressing the emotional needs of our first responders.

Peer support has been around for at least 25 years, but it has only been in the last 10 that the need for and benefit of peer teams has emerged as a necessary tool for departments. Educating our folks from day one that mental health is just as important, if not more important, than any other skill set they will learn is the only way to teach the next generation that there is no shame in asking for help. Mental health, just as any other specialty, is a perishable skill that needs to become a normal part of your career.

I hope that my experience and story can encourage others and that I can be part of helping change our culture and prepare the next generation of officers. I hope you will too.

I challenge you to find ways to jump in and make a change, to mentor, to be open and vulnerable to sharing your lessons learned, and to realize there are people and organizations who are there to help.

If you are struggling, keep stepping forward every day and find help and accountability. Partners, colleagues, leaders and other resources are here to listen.

If you are healthy, find a way to be involved and give back – join the fight. Your time in EMS is a unique experience and journey that only a select few can understand. You won’t miss the circus, but you will miss the clowns. When your career is finally done, know there are still many ways you can protect and serve those coming behind you that will carry the torch forwards. Godspeed and stay safe.

This article, originally published in May 2021, has been updated.

Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal (Retired) Dan Phillips, is national director of Responder Health, an innovative program that focuses on supporting first responders.