In recent years discussing mental health has become more normalized. The reality of not being okay has gone from being perceived as a coward for having such thoughts and emotions, to being considered brave for sharing and reaching out. While mental health has become more widely accepted overall, for First Responders stigma continues. Whether as an EMT, firefighter, police officer, or dispatcher, Vermont first responders all deal with traumatic events. It can be a car crash, domestic violence, death or serious injury, a house fire, or any number of tragic incidents. Over time emotions start to build, and stabilizing their mental health can be difficult for first responders.
(Mission Harbor Behavioral Health, 2021)
To better understand the situation, I interviewed three Vermont first responders: Jerry Ouimet, Chief of Shelburne Fire Department; Prescott Nadeau, Chief of Williston Fire Department; and Jon Marcoux, Corporal of Shelburne Police Department. Both Jerry Ouimet and Prescott Nadeau have personally dealt with mental health stress due to their jobs, although in our interviews they focused more on their observations of their own team. Jon Marcoux answered my questions more personally. “When I first started, this type of thing was taboo, we didn’t discuss it.” (J. Marcoux, personal communication, December 19, 2020)
All three interviewees pointed out that there are two communities within First Responders who are completely overlooked: dispatchers and retirees. Dispatchers are “the first first responders,” they hear events in their most raw form. They hear the panic in people’s voices as they listen to them describing the scene and situation firsthand.
When they pick up that call not only are they responsible for hearing everything in its very raw detail. People at that point haven’t had any time to process anything and they’re not in person but they can hear it all which is sometimes more graphic because their brain is then processing what the scene might look like. And there are not nearly enough resources that are dedicated to dispatchers. (P. Nadeau, personal interview, December 3, 2020)
According to Jon Marcoux, dispatchers seem to last about 5-7 years before they say they are done. Marcoux cautioned that this figure is his guesstimate, one that reflects how this particular group has a tough job due to hearing the event as it unfolds, and they may not always get the closure they need to know if the situation turned out okay or not. (J. Marcoux, personal communication, December 19, 2020)
When first responders retire, they may lose both purpose and their service community. One day they’re out saving lives and helping people stay safe, and then the next day they’re sitting at home. When asked about how well retirees handle this lifestyle change, Prescott Nadeau said, “I think that is where we struggle the most. We have a lot of departments nearby where a large amount of calls are from their retirees looking for help and service.” (P. Nadeau, personal interview, December 3, 2020) Unfortunately, there aren’t many programs to help deal with these situations. While on the job there are resources that one can access, retirees too often feel that those are now unavailable to them. As Jon Marcoux said,
It’s like a 52-foot-long tractor trailer. You start to stuff all these memories and everything that has been “traumatic” to you into this truck. And eventually that truck fills up and starts to overflow. And that is where first responders will start to have issues (J. Marcoux, personal interview, December 19, 2020).
When a person retires they have no one to share these thoughts with, and eventually their psyche starts to overflow with negative images and horrific memories.
Of course the same is true for current first responders. In a 2020 WCAX newscast, Vermont State Police Lieutenant Robert Lucas put it similarly: “It’s like putting boxes on a truck, at some point that truck fills up.” (WCAX, 2020, October 14)
Seeing traumatic events unfold can be very difficult to process and understand. When I asked the question, “Do you think there is enough mental health support for First Responders?”, each interviewee answered with the simple answer, no. All three said that even though there is help for this community, there is not nearly enough.
The Vermont Department of Health has a page on their website dedicated to this topic, which includes these statistics:.
One study showed 69% of EMS personnel do not have enough time to process after a bad call. This processing might occur in the context of formal critical incident stress debriefing (CISD), in which the group of responders meet and participate in a facilitated discussion about the call Some find this method helpful, but others find it intrusive and actively harmful. In some situations, CISD can add to the trauma of a bad call. Be mindful that less-formal peer support and just spending time together may have a greater positive impact (Vermont Department of Health, 2020).
This coincides with Jon, Jerry, and Prescott’s answers. Though there is help available, there is not enough to assist first responders process in a way that they need. According to Prescott Nadeau, “[W]hile we are better than we were five years ago and definitely better than ten years ago, I think there is a lot of room to grow.” (P. Nadeau, personal interview, December 3, 2020)
Another statistic on the Vermont Department of Health website is that “[o]ver three quarters of police officers have experienced traumatic calls, but less than half tell their agency.” (Vermont Department of Health, 2020) While this has gotten better in recent years, it remains a problem. Nobody wants to be perceived as weak and possibly risk being teased by their team. In their study “The Private Traumas of First responders,” Garner, Baker, and Hagelgans (2020) wrote,
First responders to critical incidents, such as house fires, accidents, shootings, and natural disasters, are also survivors of these events, although the public does not give this type of participant as much consideration as a survivor. Trauma, typically assessed from the perspective of traditional survivors, also deeply affects first responders, who suffer from high rates of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses, particularly acute stress disorder, PTSD, and depression.
Another face of first responder stress are coping mechanisms. I asked about dark humor, which I’ve found from personal experience is very common. “In the department we do kind of joke around in a way that outside people probably wouldn’t understand. It is a way for us to cope with what we have to deal with.” (J. Ouimet, personal communication, December 4, 2020)
Despite recent gains, mental health in Vermont First Responders is not a topic that is discussed enough. We are progressing towards having that larger conversation, so I believe that soon this topic will be brought fully into the light. The following message to Vermont First Responders is a fitting start:
(Vermont Department of Health, 2020)
Garner, N., Baker, J., and Hagelgans, D. The private traumas of first responders. (2020). The Journal of Individual Psychology, 72(3), 168-185. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/629756#info_wrap
Mission Harbor Behavioral Health. (2021). First responders: A guide to their unique mental health and addiction needs.https://sbtreatment.com/resources/first-responders-guide/
Vermont Department of Health. First responder wellness. (2020). https://www.healthvermont.gov/emergency/ems/first-responder-wellness
WCAX. VSP mental health program checks in on first responders [Interview transcript]. (2020, October 14). https://www.wcax.com/2020/10/14/ vsp-mental-health-program-checks-in-on-first-responders/
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APA cite in text as: (Johnston, 2021)
APA cite in full References as: Johnston, S. (2021). Mental health in Vermont first responders. Vermont Psychology. https://wp.me/p4elXk-H9
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I am a native Vermonter who loves being outdoors! Every season I take part in a different activity. In the winter I ski and snowboard, and I am also a volunteer instructor for Vermont Adaptive at Bolton Valley and Sugarbush! In the spring I row and love sugaring, my family friends own a sugarhouse and I help out with their business. In the summer I skateboard and rock climb! And in the fall I also row and love to hike during this time of year! In the future I plan on either studying psychology to become a Clinical Psychologist, or criminal justice and become a Game Warden for whatever state I end up in!