Addressing stigma in first response is a process.

As a group, we are defined by our responsibilities to others. We are healers and protectors. The expectation of stoicism in the face of adversity can be a difficult one to shake. Change is most effective when implemented at multiple levels. This should include both the individual level and organizational policy change, with a focus on fact-based education to reduce misconceptions of people with mental illness.

A focus on positive psychology at a departmental level can be a great tool for addressing the stigma around mental health care. Positive psychology advocates involvement both when people are struggling and also when they are thriving. Promoting wellness and happiness is just as important as reducing anxiety and depression.

Tips for promoting positive psychology in your department
  • Check in with your crew after every call or shift. Make wellness a focus of debriefing. Openly acknowledge counterfactual thinking where it exists as both a positive and a negative force.

  • Promote resiliency as a department. Set aside some time together periodically to actively focus on improving resiliency. This could mean doing a group workout one week or trying a yoga sequence the next.

  • Talk about mental health, both in the context of illness and wellness. If you are a leader in your organization, sharing your experience with mental health can help others feel more comfortable coming to you with their own experiences. Normalizing the discussion of mental health from the top down can have a significant impact on reducing stigma.

  • Incorporate mental health and responder wellness into annual continuing education training.

Considerations for addressing stigma

Many of our perceptions around stigma are caused by a lack of discussion around the subject. One study found that police officers perceived their colleagues as judgmental of mental illness, yet those same colleagues didn’t hold the expected attitudes. We see silence as judgment when in reality it is more often fear of judgment from others. Simply taking the time to begin the discussion can make a difference. Below are some good places to start, from both an organizational and personal standpoint.

  • Does your organization provide any wellness resources? Do they include mental and emotional wellness? Does your EAP cover confidential counseling?

  • Are there any policies in place that address mental illness, either in populations served or staff? Do these policies serve to increase or reduce stigma? Zero Suicide provides great resources to assess and improve suicide prevention and care.

  • What is the attitude of leadership? Are there open and honest discussions about wellness? Has there ever been negative action taken against those who ask for help?

  • How do you speak with your crew about patients with mental health concerns? What kind of language is used around the station after those calls? 

  • Think about your attitude toward your own mental wellbeing. Do you beat yourself up for being anxious or down? Would you do the same if the pain you were experiencing were physical, like an old back injury or a wrist sprain?

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