Updated: Jul 19, 2021
Special Guest Writers
Since 1949, the United States has observed the month of May as national "Mental Health Awareness Month". The field of mental health, health care organizations, non-profit organizations and partnering affiliates use the media and community events to do outreach and engagement. One of the underlying goals is to show support for those living with a mental illness by de-stigmatizing mental health conditions.
That stigma is intensified among 9-1-1 professionals. We expect 9-1-1 communication operators and dispatchers to be strong and stoic in the face of crisis. They are exposed to significant amounts of trauma and some silently suffer on the front lines while continuing their service to our communities.
The 9-1-1 professionals below share their own stories of survival to break the stigma of the old-school "Suck-It-Up" emotional code that dispatchers have long embraced. This May, we hope these inspirational stories encourage dispatchers to seek appropriate help and treatment...
Gary Bell, ENP, RPL, CEM Director of Emergency Preparedness, Waukesha County Communications (WI)
As PSAP professionals in the public-safety space, each one of us has our story and many of us have identified our triggers, and much like a PSAP no two are identical. Knowing that, I will hold back my WHY this is so important to me, (perhaps share it as a “prequel” article in the future, (it is May 4th as I scribe this)) ask a WHO question, and share with you the WHAT & HOW. This is not a Solo journey, rather together we can remove the stigma and create a community that will seize amazing post-traumatic growth with our collective focus. Mental Wellness, Resiliency, and effective CISM and Peer Support programs are high on this list.
Who, (whether telecommunicator, administrator, or industry partner), has ever considered that without properly caring and preparing our first-first- responders for the abnormal job the community has asked them to do is directly related to our current staffing crisis? Our focus on screening quality applicants, making sure only the best and the brightest make it through, providing them the training on the physical skills required to process these abnormal events, and finally determining the reason why your high performers are staying, all help to stop the bleeding. What are we collectively missing in the Hiring, Training and Retention aspects of this vocation?
What are you doing to prepare top recruits for the mental complexities of this position and the tolls that will be drawn out of them and their families over the course of their service? Whether that be new hire training or continuing education, let’s face it, the world doesn’t care if you are day 1 or day 8000 on the job, THE phone call often times is presented identically and without warning. What does your organization have in place to make sure your basic fundamental needs as a human being are met? How have they prepared your family to become a supportive advocate for your development and growth, have they shared the signs of struggle and the ways to intervene?
How, the NENA Wellness Continuum is a great opportunity for you to become involved and engaged in helping to solve this issue. A great number of resources are currently on the website, along with a means for you to share your resources, and just as important, an opportunity to be a member of the Wellness Committee’s ever-growing work groups and become an agent for change.
Core to my being, and a go-to resource, (as you know I cannot miss an opportunity to identify a book reference) is Martin Seligman’s work on Positive Psychology. His recent offering of Flourish is transformative for those who chose to practice the recommendations found within.
DO or DO NOT, there is no TRY – Yoda.
Don Jones, CMCP, ENP Dispatch Manager, Sonoma County Sheriff's Office (CA)
Early on in my career, I realized that people thought they understood that my job as a 9-1-1 Dispatcher was stressful but they had no clue. Doctors would ask me what I do for a work and I will would tell them. Their common response was “that must be stressful.” I would just laugh because the alternative was to cry. There was no in between. The tag line of people’s worst day is our everyday is gut wrenching but accurate. Then you get into a weird place where you want a “good shift” which means a stabbing as occurred or a vehicle pursuit or even better, all of that. Just not all at once.
We become what we think is immune because we have heard it all. We are not immune. We are human. We can only take so much. It affects us. It takes a toll on our relationships, thought processes, ability to engage people without being cynical or judging. Every part of who we are.
For almost two decades in 9-1-1, I thought I knew what trauma was. It was not until our center was 150 yards from wildfire that I experienced real trauma. I would go home and just stare. Stare at nothing. Hoping that something would happen that would fill me with happiness. As much as friends and family tried to help, I could not open up. I tired. I really wanted to but my mind could not process the event without reliving it and I was not ready yet.
This was not normal for me. The challenge of living a normal life seemed to be a thing of the past. Was this my new normal? This is awful. For me, I needed to talk with a professional therapist. I needed someone to listen to me without judgement, who would let me get it all out and explore what had happened. By the time I had my first appointment, I was ready. I knew I had to open up about my experience so I could move past it.
Am I “cured”? Well, sure. There are days that it takes everything I have not to freak out because it is windy outside or driving and the smell of a fire comes into the car. I just remember to breathe. The knowledge that I have been through hell and come out the other side gives me strength to conquer what life has for me next.
“Mental health” and “resiliency” are two words that get thrown around a lot these days. But it’s not a one-size-fits-all thing. Mental health and resiliency look much different for a 9-1-1 dispatcher as opposed to a “normal person”.
I have been in 9-1-1 dispatch for the past 16 years. Over that period of time, I have heard everything from people dying on the phone to violent domestic disturbances. I have heard things on the other end of the phone that no human should ever have to hear. Sometimes all in one day. I have also been through the death of my co-workers as well. Nothing really prepares you for that. But I’m not here to traumatize you. I am here with a message of hope.
You are not broken. You are competent. You are capable. You are one of the most amazing human beings on this earth because you are verbally abused and continually exposed to trauma… and yet you come back and plug in EVERY. DAMN. DAY.
You may be jaded, bitter, and just fed up with the current state of the world. You may be tired from working nights or countless hours of overtime. You may feel misunderstood and under-appreciated. But I truly believe that you are here to make a difference in this world. YOU just have to believe that too, especially when it gets hard.
If anyone in this industry tells you they have not suffered any ill-effects on their mental health by being in this job, they are lying. There is no way you can be a good person and NOT feel it. We are actually more prone to experience these feelings because we are the helpers, and it’s our job to identify suffering and try to stop it.
But what is more important is that when you are lying in “it”; when you are really feeling the effects of what this profession can do to you… that you get back up. You get back on your feet, and you are stronger and better than before. No one blames the butterfly for starting out as a caterpillar. So why would we blame you for struggling when you can make something so much more beautiful out of an ugly situation?
I like to visualize dispatchers as having their own personal phoenix on their shoulder as their guides. Yes, sometimes things get too hot and they can burn up. But day after day, hour after hour, our dispatchers rise from the ashes over and over, burning brighter and stronger than ever before.
If you are struggling, please get help. Therapy should be as normal as getting your hair cut or getting your nails done. We need to end the stigma surrounding mental health and the only way we can do that is by using the resources that are there to help us and encourage others to do the same by sharing our success stories.
What step can you take today to rise from the ashes and shine like never before?
Brendhan Sears, RPL
Telecommunicator, Lake County Sheriff's Office (IL) Founder, Humanizing the Headset
“Wow, you’re a 9-1-1 Dispatcher?! What’s the worst call you’ve ever taken?”
It’s in that question that I realized the effects of trauma are always lurking just beneath the surface, waiting for the right moment - a trigger. That question is mine. I know a lot of fellow dispatchers and colleagues are going to read this, but I really want to reach those of you who aren’t. I’m going to briefly recount a few of those moments in hopes that you truly understand the gravity of the question you’re asking and, more importantly, why you shouldn’t. I call them my Greatest Hits, and yes, I’m acutely aware of how insensitive that sounds, but it weakens the power and emotional grip those calls have over me, and I need that to help me process.
I don’t even think I was a year in when I answered a call of a woman screaming. She was trapped in the attic of a burning house, so it was that kind of scream. Sheer terror. I think we were both convinced she was going to die, and that I would be one to hear it happen. She didn’t, but you don’t have the benefit of knowing that in the moment. The knowledge of exactly what did happen, however, is unknown. That’s a luxury we dispatchers are seldom afforded. This was 12 years ago, and those screams are just as loud in my head as they were that night.
It was around my sixth year that I got a call for a kid outside a school with a shotgun. My heart sank. I thought, okay, this is it. Here we go, and in those adrenaline-fueled minutes before deputies arrived, I braced for impact. Fortunately, it was an air-soft gun and the kid just wanted to shoot at some birds - in the absolute worst place possible. Our minds fill in the blanks of traumatic calls with the worst-case scenario, though. It’s just what we do. So, while the outcome was the exact opposite, I still wasn’t spared the emotional reaction, and I cried in the car after my shift. For those who have worked through active shooter calls, God bless you.
A more difficult call was a suicidal man with a gun. You want to build a rapport with these callers so they can trust you when you tell them everything is going to be okay, because really it is. This man wasn’t in the talking mood, so I was having trouble finding the “right” things to say because I may trigger him. I’m walking blindfolded through a minefield in the dark. One minute he would be fine, and the next he would yell angrily through clenched teeth, “I’m gonna do it!!” I could hear the sound of the pistol sliding off the table when he grabbed it. Thankfully, he didn’t, but he was right there on that ledge.
My most traumatic call was a homicide, and those details honestly just don’t belong here. So, when you ask about my Greatest Hits, these are a few that come to mind. I usually try to keep the conversation light. “Oh, they all sort of run together after a while, ya know?” as my mind floods with the sounds and emotions of the worst of the worst. It’s dizzying. The knots in your stomach, shortness of breath, the cold sweats. You’re right back in the hot seat, only you’re reliving each moment simultaneously. Sometimes, I’ll switch to something funny, “well, I had one woman call 9-1-1 asking for trick-or-treat times!” I’ll say with a contrived laugh. Most times, they’re satisfied with that response and don’t press for more.
I’m fairly open with my emotions, and I talk through my difficult calls with some of my amazing work family. We also have a phenomenal Peer Support Team, of which I am a member. I know therapy is always an option, and I’ll jump at that opportunity should the need arise. In many ways, I feel trauma makes us better dispatchers. We’re more empathetic and in tune with the needs of our callers. We just need to make sure we are healed from our own trauma so we can more effectively guide others through theirs.
Halcyon Frank Public Safety Dispatcher Founder, The Dispatch Lab
Having lived with depression and anxiety since middle school, I thought this would be a good time to share my ten tips with living with depression and how you too, can overcome it! Ha. I wish. As many of you who may also have experienced this war, you know that depression has a twin brother, Anxiety, and they're pretty inseparable. I've spent a lot of time since beginning my struggle, with figuring out how to live with it and even allow my life to still flourish despite the obstacles this oh-so-wonderful condition causes. Some days I don't want to get out of bed. But this isn't the "Oh I'm tired", or "Oh I have so much to do, I'd rather stay here", or the "oh this bed is so comfortable" I don't want to get out of bed.
This feeling of not wanting to get out of bed comes from a place much deeper...and in a way, darker. It's not so much not wanting to get out of bed though, as it is, I can't. The physical, emotional, and mental energy to get through the day, is just something I don't have.
Depression is much more than just being sad, it's being physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted with really no explanation. It's feeling worthless and alone, even when you're surrounded by people who care about you, and you know you are not worthless. It's, “I am so unworthy of being loved, so I will stay here in bed where I don't have to worry about people confirming the illusions of inadequacy I have about myself.”
It's trying to get all the negative and anxiety ridden thoughts out of my head and making the choice each day to live life the best that I can and remind myself I am worth so much more than the thoughts are telling me. It's reminding myself that even though I am dependent on medication to help me control all this, in no way is it an indication of weakness. It’s having the power and strength to be honest with myself and others, and not tip toe around the issue and being willing to bring it to the light and speak out, in the hopes that it will help others.
There are no 10 tips or 15 ways to help completely erase the struggles caused by depression and anxiety. You can though, give yourself permission to stay in bed, and get a little extra rest from time to time. You can, take some extra time for yourself or see if medication is right for you. Most importantly please remember, NO ONE is alone in this struggle. I have had some really tough days, compounded by the fact that many felt like there was no logical reason to why I felt the way I did....but man, I've had some even better days, including ones that work, that remind me why I love living life. And those my friends, are the ones we must focus on.
Luz Martinez Police Dispatcher Founder, Dispatch Wellness
After almost every critical incident I have worked there is a replay of whatever has happened and many times technical notes on what I could have done better or what was done very well. It is part of the job and part of the growth process. Part of learning how to improve and be better prepared for the next call or transmission. It makes sense. We want to be good. We must be good. There is a lot on the line. The stakes are very high. But after years of experience, I started to realize that the job would get done, and more often than not it would get done very well.
Please do not confuse this knowledge with complacency. Knowing and preparing to do a good job is not the same as letting go of effort and letting go of awareness. In fact, they are not even relatively close. What I mean is that as dispatchers we take pride in what we do. We blossom in rigorous training processes. We become adept at in-taking and organizing a high level of information quickly. We master doing seven things at the same time. We literally train for high-stress situations every moment of every workday. High stress is the air we breathe and our lungs are used to its density. Or are they?
If you would have asked me how I was doing with stress management when I was a newer dispatcher, at about five years in, I would have told you that stress was not even a problem. The problem was everything else. Literally, everything else was what I identified as the problem. Because there are ways to justify our inability to cope with the ordinary, it is simple: blame the ordinary. But one day after work my beautiful children who were only about 3 and 5 years old were really wearing me out. I sensed that I did not have the internal capacity to be patient with them and had to white knuckle their adorable requests with a fake smile. It was SO exhausting and not the way I wanted to parent. It was also a wake-up call. At that moment I knew how overwhelmed I was. I recognized the dreaded word: burnout. Because there was no way to blame a 3 and 5-year-old. At least there was no way for me to do it, I loved these mini-humans too much. And have you seen 3 and 5-year-olds? They are literally comical and adorable and happy and play with fake kitchens and wear funny clothing.
I did what I thought was the logical thing and considered leaving the job. How many dispatchers do you know that leave the job more or less around the 5-year mark or a bit after? It is a rhetorical question and I truly ask myself if this is part of the reason. Perhaps the amount of time doing the job without coming to terms with the after-effects of breathing in stress all day at work has a shelf life that for many can end up in leaving a career that they might still enjoy and contribute to. I couldn't get myself to leave the job though. Dispatching is my first professional love and I was very much still in love with the career.
So, I did the next logical thing and found a yoga class (literally this was my logic). I had never done yoga before and was zero flexible, and please never ask me how coordinated I am. But still, I started attending yoga regularly. I soon realized how moving and breathing gave me a sense of clarity I had not felt for a long time, if ever.
Around the same time, a friend who I was close to back then talked to me about therapy and scheduled me an appointment and drove me to his therapist's office. He literally drove me and waited for me outside for an hour. We are not close now, but I will never forget this gesture and the way it changed my life and will be forever grateful to him. Life took a turn for the better. My patience capacity grew. My yoga practice and regular therapy allowed me to stay in my profession and keep growing, not only my patience, but a lot of other things in my life too.
If you were to ask me how I am doing with stress management today, I would tell you that it ebbs and flows as the ocean does, like life has a way of doing. I would tell you that I regularly practice yoga, meditation, and mindfulness and have been in therapy since that good friend drove me to my first session. I would tell you that dispatching is a very stressful job but that it can also be very rewarding. I believe that wellness should be an innate priority in our industry. I would tell you that I am deeply committed to my mental health and overall well-being.
Today when I start becoming impatient or blaming everything around me for whatever I am feeling, I recognize these things as my alert beacons and double down on the tools I have found to carry me through the phases of a really demanding career. I would also tell you that I am deeply invested in sharing the tools I have learned with our dispatch community. Because we are a community and that knowledge in itself has been a huge tool in overcoming burn out.
Special thanks to the brave men and women above for being open and vulnerable in sharing their stories. As we recognize Mental Health Awareness Month, we honor all the 9-1-1 professionals who have faced mental health challenges during their career. It does not matter if you are a seasoned veteran or the newest trainee... we are all human.
Deep within you lies a strength unknown. Sometimes, you just need a little help tapping into it; and when you do, you will find the sweetest freedom in healing. Together we will break the stigma. This is the Thin Gold Line and we never walk alone.