It is our duty to address the mental health and wellbeing of first responders (Guest Opinion by Anna Fitch Courie)

Anna Fitch Courie, a doctor of nursing and licensed nurse in public health, is the director of Responder Wellness for the FirstNet program at AT&T. She is based in Columbia, South Carolina. FirstNet is a nationwide emergency communications network established by Congress after the 9/11 terror attacks. AT&T built FirstNet through a public-private partnership.

Not all superheroes wear capes. Many even wear scrubs, paramedic uniforms, transmitting headsets, fireproof jackets and badges. We saw this during the pandemic as first responders braved the risk of COVID infection to protect our neighbors during one of the most challenging times of our lives. These remarkable women and men run toward danger rather than run away from it. While they never consider themselves heroes, for many they are. But they are also people and can be deeply affected by the life-changing, dangerous and traumatic situations they face on a daily basis.

As National Mental Health Awareness Month, May also recognizes first responders with Emergency Medical Services Week, Nurses Week, Correctional Officer Week, Police Week and Firefighters Day, making it a perfect opportunity to raise awareness about mental health challenges faced by our first responders and encourage everyone to give support to those who care so much.

Most people cannot understand the stressors that first responders encounter during the emergencies they handle on a daily basis. Compared to the general population, first responders are more likely to experience depression, post-traumatic stress, burnout, anxiety and other psychological problems. It is estimated that more than a third of first responders deal with mental health problems. One study found that law enforcement officers have a more than 20-year difference in life expectancy compared to the average American man, while another found that first responders are more likely to die by suicide than while on the job. Even before the pandemic, an estimated 1 in 4 first responders had post-traumatic stress.

These staggering statistics and the impact of the pandemic are just some of the reasons public safety authorities are focusing more on the health and well-being of first responders. The FirstNet Health & Wellness Coalition, an AT&T health and wellness program for first responders, unites more than two dozen member organizations representing more than 5.1 million first responders and primary care providers to support the mental health of first responders. Priorities include post-traumatic stress, depression and self-harm, physical fitness, resilience, and family involvement and leadership.

FirstNet was born through the vision of Congress and the first responder community following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which dramatically affected first responders in New York City and across the state. As a public safety communications partner, FirstNet is committed to being there for first responders, and recognizing the need for a wide range of mental health support, services, resources and resources is part of that mission.

It’s never too late for executives, administrators and agency heads to launch department initiatives and training that support the health and well-being of your employees.

In New York, FirstNet and AT&T are working with the New York State Sheriffs Association to develop and launch a statewide health and wellness program. Launching this summer, the program is just one of several programs that FirstNet and AT&T are supporting in the state and country to help first responders deal with the stressful and traumatic situations they face every day. Raising awareness, highlighting these challenges and providing resources are critical steps to change the unwarranted stigma surrounding the mental health of first responders.

This month, and every month, let’s all work together to make it normal to seek help. Let’s develop open environments that encourage conversations about mental health, especially for first responders. This is the least we can do for our first responders – our superheroes.

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