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December 19, 2019  | Updated: June 7, 2021

Category: Mental Health


  • 30% of first responders develop behavioral health conditions
  • Core risk factor for first responders is the pace of their work
  • Depression, stress, PTSD, and suicidal ideation common

A recent report found that first responders are more likely to experience mental health and substance use concerns than the general population.

The report, released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, estimated that 30 percent of first responders develop behavioral health conditions such as  depression and PTSD, compared with 20 percent in the general population.

The study found that one of the core risk factors for first responders is the pace of their work. For that reason, EMS personnel have been found to deal with depression, stress, PTSD, and suicidal ideation.

Firefighters, due to their erratic sleep schedules and repeated exposure to painful experiences, often deal with depression, PTSD, stress, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation. The study found that volunteer firefighters have greater structural barriers to use of mental health services than career firefighters.

Researchers found police officers are at an increased risk of negative mental health consequences due to the dangerous nature of their jobs as well as the greater likelihood that they experience traumatic events. Depression, suicidal ideation, substance abuse, and PTSD are all factors that have been prevalent.

While the day-to-day duties can put workers at a greater risk, a majority of the cases tend to spike after catastrophic natural disasters or national security incidents. The study found that both first responders and the institutions they work for can be proactive in reducing the risk for and negative consequences.

Preparation recommendations:

Leaders and managers can plan in advance of disaster mobilization and outline potential risks, establish care teams, gather information about the natural disaster to reduce dangers, ensure team members are adequately trained, model the structure of the team on the Incident Command System, ask potential responders to be aware of their current stress and assess if they have the capacity to deal with the disaster.

Individual first responders can follow a course of action as well in order to protect their own mental health. The report recommended that first responders be aware of personal vulnerability, signs of burnout, signs of compassion fatigue, or psychological pain. The report also cited the importance of making plans prior to the disaster for self-care during response.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES: How Can First Responders Manage Sleep And Stress?

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MORE: Read the full report