Mental illness in First Responders

Police officers, firefighter, paramedics, and corrections officers have dangerous jobs and put their lives on the line every day. However, research shows that first responders are more likely to die from suicide than they are to die in the line of duty. First responders face on the job stress daily and experience being taken hostage, being threatened with guns, injuries or deaths of bystanders and co-workers, and watching people die. These critical events can take a serious toll on the mental health of first responders.

Rates of Mental Illness

A Canadian study published in 2017 surveyed 6,000 public safety personnel and found that substantial numbers of the study participants demonstrated symptoms of mental illness. The results indicated that 44.5% of the study participants screened positive for clinically significant mental health symptoms. This statistic is significantly higher than the 10% mental illness diagnostic rate among the general population. The most frequently indicated mental illnesses included post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and panic disorders. The highest rates of these illnesses were found among corrections officers.

The study shows that mental illness among first responders is a serious issue that deserves serious attention. There are obvious factors that could lead to the prevalence of mental illness, but are there adequate treatment options available to these individuals?


Among many first responders, there is still a stigma associated with mental illness. These individuals feel that seeking treatment takes away from the perception that they are strong and tough in the face of adversity. They may feel that seeking treatment will put a blemish on their records and prevent them from achieving career advancement. For some, there may be a perception that honesty around mental illness is career-destroying.

Police departments, fire departments and prisons need to create a culture where getting treated for mental health issues is normalized and, in fact, expected of everyone. Departments should treat mental health no differently than physical health. Departments should provide high quality Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) and encourage employees to take advantage of them. In addition, departments should include training on mental health and wellness and make employees aware of available resources.

If you or a loved one with a mental illness or intellectual or developmental disability has been arrested or convicted of a crime, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney on your side. Elizabeth Kelley specializes in representing individuals with mental illnesses and intellectual and developmental disabilities. To schedule a consultation call (509) 991-7058.

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