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First Responders Face Mental Health Challenges


First responders provide critical services to communities in the aftermath of disasters, both natural and manmade. Their work can be dangerous, physically demanding, personally draining and heart-breaking, often involving long hours in difficult circumstances. Their exposure to traumatic events and devastating circumstances can lead to a range of health and mental health consequences, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), compassion fatigue and burnout.

Studies have found that some 75 percent of rescue workers have mild symptoms of psychological trauma following a disaster. Several factors, including longer periods of deployment, inexperience, close contact with corpses and longer shifts, are associated with greater mental health challenges.

A study of rescue workers who responded to a terrorist attack found 17 percent were diagnosed with PTSD and 22 percent with depression. In a recent study of more than 200 rescue workers involved in the European refugee crisis, researchers also found that 17 percent of rescue workers experienced symptoms of PTSD, while 57 percent reported a high level of perceived burnout and 73 percent reported low levels of well-being. The study authors suggest that improving professional knowledge and occupational training of rescue workers, as well as managing the length of shifts and the overall length of operation for each rescue worker, can help minimize both physical and psychological problems.

The ongoing work of first responders in the community can also take a toll on workers’ mental health. According to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, a fire department is three times more likely in any given year to experience a suicide among its staff than a line-of-duty death.

A national survey of first responders from the University of Phoenix found mental health challenges are common and while resources are generally available to help, they are often not used. Approximately 85 percent of first responders had experienced symptoms related to mental health issues, 34 percent had received a formal diagnosis with a mental disorder, more than a quarter had been diagnosed with depression, one in 10 had been diagnosed with PTSD and 46 percent had experienced anxiety. Despite the need, the majority of first responders reported that mental health services are rarely used at their organization. The stigma associated with mental health may be keeping them from getting the help they need. Nearly 40 percent said there would be negative repercussions for seeking mental health help at work, such as a supervisor treating them differently, being seen as weak or being overlooked for promotions.

Providing Support in the Aftermath of Disaster: The APA Foundation’s New Disaster Relief Fund

The devastation caused by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria and their impact on mental health will be felt for years to come. Help address victims’ needs by donating to the APA Foundation’s new fund to provide assistance to those whose lives have been disrupted by major disasters. To contribute, please visit the Foundation’s Disaster Relief page.

Learn More

For all those responding to disasters and traumatic events, it’s important to remember that help is available. If you or someone you know needs help, you can contact SAMHSA’s Disaster Distress Helpline, 1-800-985-5990 or text “TalkWithUs” to 66746. It is a national hotline of behavioral health experts who provide year-round, free and confidential disaster crisis counseling. The Fire Fighters Behavioral Health Alliance has a variety of resources designed specifically to help first responders.


  • University of Phoenix. Majority of First Responders Face Mental Health Challenges in the Workplace. April 18, 2017. Gallop survey of 2,00 U.S. adults firefighter, police officers, EMT/paramedics and nurses. By Harris Poll in February 2017.
  • Chatzea, et al. PTSD, burnout and well-being among rescue workers: Seeking to understand the impact of the European refugee crisis on rescuers. Psychiatry Research. 2017.




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