First responders are the lifeblood of our communities. When we need any kind of help, we call them and they are there, using their training to help us, protect us and even save us.
All first responders experience mental stress from their important work. They quickly assess and react to the most tragic and visceral scenes imaginable. As a result, first responders experience higher rates of depression, PTSD, anxiety, and other mental health issues, than the general population.
It is worth noting that women in public safety appear to have an additional burden. Suicidal ideation is slightly higher in female law enforcement officers than men. 22.2% of female career firefighters are at risk for depression, and 38.5% of female volunteer firefighters are at risk for depression. 60% are drinking more than the American Dietary Guidelines suggest for alcohol intake.
This is especially problematic because we need more women to choose a career in public safety. Currently, women hold only 13% of all law enforcement positions. Recruiting women is particularly challenging because of the additional stress created by balancing a career in public safety and a family.
Providing health and wellness opportunities to first responders – both women and men – promotes the health and success of individuals, enhances the overall safety of the cities and towns they serve, and creates the support structure needed to ensure long, productive, resilient careers.
Thankfully, the public safety community is self-aware, recognizing these challenges and the need for increased wellness services. A survey and analysis done by the FirstNet Health and Wellness Coalition found that both male and female first responders see an opportunity to engage in addressing their health and wellness risk factors
For public safety leaders, wellness must be a priority. First responders are more likely to develop healthy behaviors when it is part of their department’s culture and focus. Implementing health and wellness programs, and being vocal about their need and impact, highlight a department’s willingness to support their responders. And that proactive approach is critical for recruitment and retention – two of the biggest challenges in policing today.
We are fortunate that wellness opportunities are growing in Rhode Island. For example, the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association recently announced a new health and wellness initiative. Supported by AT&T, the Chiefs Association initiative will launch a warmline for first responders staffed by a clinician with significant law enforcement expertise.
As an animal lover, I am excited to see more police departments embracing the work of comfort dogs to help people in crisis. My friend Cali in Cranston has many colleagues around the state like Leo in South Kingstown, Brody in Bristol and Gus with the Rhode Island State Police who help the people in their communities as well as the officers in their departments.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month and is a great opportunity to amplify the importance of first responder wellness, particularly female first responders. This will help us better support all our first responders, inspire women to become first responders and empower them to recognize and develop their potential.
Jacquelyn Baginski is an EMT and is the State Representative from District 17 in Cranston. She was recently honored as Legislator of the Year by the Mental Health Association of Rhode Island.