Confronting the Mental Health Stigma Among First Responders

Explore strategies to break the responder mental health stigma in police and EMS, promoting awareness & support for their well-being.

April 12, 2024

Confronting the Mental Health Stigma Among First Responders

First responders are our frontline defense to an emergency. It’s bravery at its highest level, facing challenging and dangerous situations every day. They’re also the first ones to check in on survivors for emotional and physical support after traumatic events. While they are pillars of strength in our society, the irony is, who reaches out to them for emotional and physical support after these traumatic events?

This mental health stigma surrounding first responders likely stems from an expectation from society, their agency, or themselves to be the calm, measured, strong, and fearless professional. Any attempt at seeking mental health support may be viewed as weakness. A vicious cycle begins: mental health issues are left unaddressed, conditions like anxiety, depression, and PTSD build over time, and a first responder’s emotional wellbeing is put at risk.

Breaking down this stigma requires attacking it from a number of angles, including leadership, educational programs, and peer support. PowerLine from PowerDMS by NEOGOV is meant to do just that—offer comprehensive wellness resources, provide anonymous support, and allow first responders to talk with their peers who get it.

First Responder Mental Health Statistics

To grasp the severity of mental health and its effect on first responders, it’s imperative to focus on numbers that highlight the danger of letting these conditions go unnoticed.

Around 30 percent of first responders develop mental health conditions, including depression and PTSD (1). Over 80 percent of first responders report experiencing trauma while in the line of duty, and an estimated 10 to 15 percent have been diagnosed with PTSD (2).

Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, one 2022 meta-analysis found substantially higher levels of depression, anxiety, and stress among first responders. Researchers note that early management of mild depression, anxiety, and stress is encouraged to prevent longer term development of these conditions (3).

Left untreated, first responders face an even more sinister threat—suicide. 

Even with all the common hazards and dangers of a job in emergency response, statistics show that first responders are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty (4).

A 2023 study examined the suicide rates of first responders between 2015 and 2017—they made up one percent of all suicides (5). An incredibly alarming statistic amplified by the fact that the job ranked as one of the top three drivers of first responder suicide. 

Looking deeper into the makeup of that one percent, they found the following breakdown of first responders: 

  • 58% Law Enforcement
  • 28% Firefighters
  • 18% EMS Clinicians
  • 2% Telecommunicators

Breaking Down Barriers

One survey of 4,021 EMS participants found that first responders would find an employee assistance program (EAP) or private therapist more effective if they had experience dealing with those who suffer from PTSD. The survey also found responders would benefit greatly if their workplace supported mental health and encouraged them to seek mental health support (1).

Breaking down barriers starts with effective emotional support. This is done by understanding the first responder experience to accurately treat their mental health symptoms and by encouraging mental health awareness and support in the workplace.

Leadership bears the responsibility of championing open communication and normalization of mental health in their departments. That may be a workshop or policy implementation to actively encourage help-seeking behavior. Policy examples include mental health benefits as part of their coverage and prioritizing time off for appointments.

Educational programs are great but challenging. They limit the anonymity of first responders seeking help and can be time-consuming in a profession where time isn’t a luxury. The main point isn’t to put first responders in a classroom to listen to a lecture, but rather to equip them with tools and coping skills to better handle common mental health conditions. It’s also important to go deeper and offer training on stress management techniques, mindfulness skills, and healthy habits that translate into their everyday lives, like diet and exercise.

Confidential peer support not only builds trust and a shared understanding amongst departments but is also a better motivator for first responders who are hesitant about reaching out. Trained responders who have experienced the same trauma and mental health issues offer a safe space for first responders to confide in and feel less isolated.

Empowering Mental Health for First Responders

It can be difficult to implement real change around something that still holds a strong stigma in the first responder community. Policy changes, educational programs, and other mental health resources all take time out of a profession that doesn’t have a lot of it. You need an accessible and easy-to-use solution to make this happen.

PowerLine is a comprehensive mobile app designed to address the unique mental health needs of first responders. It provides anonymous and readily available support resources to foster that culture of communication and normalization within your department.

The app equips first responders with self-assessment tools, a library of relevant content, and access to a nationwide network of trained peer volunteers who understand the challenges unique to first responders. PowerLine empowers both responders and agencies—responders can access confidential support anytime and anywhere, and agencies receive anonymized data insights to help tailor their wellness programs to best address their responders' needs.

PowerLine in Action: A Case Study

The Greenville Police Department in North Carolina faced difficulties creating a wellness program for their officers. Building it from scratch was expensive and time-consuming, and officers relied on supervisors to find resources, which could be inconvenient and uncomfortable. By implementing PowerLine, the Greenville Police Department addressed these challenges to allow their officers to take charge of their mental well-being.


“PowerLine helps support officers through all the little calls that pile up with resources they can access anytime.”

Captain Tara Stanton | Greenville Police Department, NC

Learn more about PowerLine and how it can help your first responders and your agency’s wellness program today. Schedule a Consultation

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Learn more about PowerLine and how it can help your first responders and your agency’s wellness program today