By Special Guest Writer
CEO and Owner, Center for Trauma, Anxiety, and Stress, Inc.
The word “culture” can mean a lot of different things. Typically, it’s used to represent the shared beliefs, attitudes, values, and traditions of racial, religious, or social groups. Less recognized, however, is the existence of culture as it pertains to certain occupations. This is especially true for first responders.
First responder culture did not develop out of thin air, and like most things, it exists for a reason. The shared culture is a vital tool that can keep first responders functioning as a finely tuned, well-oiled machine. In some cases, the culture can even protect lives. But just like anything else, too much of something is generally not a good thing, and instead, “moderation is key”. In my line of work with first responders, I find that many start running into trouble when they find themselves too immersed in the culture, which can lead to a range of short- and long-term issues. Although not exhaustive, the following are some aspects of first responder culture that can result in negative consequences when the scales are tipped.
Tradition and Pride
Themes of tradition and pride are omnipresent among first responders. It’s not uncommon for someone to have a deep familial history in the occupation dating back several generations. Also not uncommon is that for some, being a first responder becomes their identity. Deriving a deep sense of purpose from one’s career is not a bad thing; in fact, in some cases, it can actually serve as a protective factor and prevent issues with mental health (Malone et al., 2000).
However, problems may arise if someone finds themselves in the situation where being a first responder is their only identity. This can be particularly dangerous when someone is retiring from the profession, has to take medical leave due to injury or illness, or when they voluntarily leave the profession for personal reasons. I’ve worked with many first responders who describe feeling lost, unfulfilled, forgotten, alone, and lacking purpose as they transition from being a first responder to being a civilian. Indeed, it is no coincidence that rates of mental illness, such as PTSD, significantly rise after retirement (Berninger et al., 2010). While having a sense of connection to your identity within the profession can be a good thing, not knowing who you are outside of the profession is not.
Camaraderie is deeply engrained in first responder culture. Peers and coworkers are much more than that, they’re family. This degree of cohesion is adaptive. Many first responders spend exorbitant amounts of time together on shift; some may spend more time with their first responder family than their non-first responder family. Having a tight-knit community with those who understand first-hand the ins and outs of the job provides an unmatched level of support. Even more, some first responders must rely on one another in dangerous life-threatening situations.
Although this familial-like bond can help just about any first responder thrive in their career, it also has its downsides. One of these major downsides is what I call the “us” versus “them” phenomenon. Many first responders grow so close and connected to their first responder family, they may notice that they feel more comfortable around them than they do their family at home. They may find it hard to connect with civilians and begin to isolate themselves physically and/or emotionally from loved ones. They may choose to hold everything inside instead of talking to friends and family; they’ll never be able to understand what it’s like, so why even talk to them about it, right? Having strong bonds with first responders is incredibly important, but lacking connections with others outside of the job can cause a host of issues.
Resiliency and Strength
It is no secret that resiliency and strength are the most pervasive themes in first responder culture. First responders have the ability to tolerate more physical and emotional distress than the average civilian. They are problem solvers and life savers.
It is also no secret that these pillars of first responder culture have inadvertently created a massive and seemingly impenetrable stigma surrounding any perceived deviation from strength and perfection. The most commonly cited barrier to seeking help among first responders is the stigma associated with experiencing any sort of mental health issue. Strength is valued, and anything less can imply a myriad of perceived consequences such as being weak, a failure, or even worse, a safety risk (Jones et al., 2020). In turn, this stigma perpetuates a cycle of suffering in silence, which can lead to a number of catastrophic consequences including substance abuse, divorce, and suicide.
So, am I proposing that first responder culture be demolished? Of course not! The culture is essential to the profession and should be valued. At the same time, it’s important to be mindful of potential issues that might arise if someone is fully submerged in them. Here are some tips for finding a healthy balance between the culture on and off the job:
1. When you’re not on shift, actively seek out hobbies and endeavors that (1) you value and (2) bring you fulfillment. This could include activities such as recreational sports and interest groups, volunteering with organizations that you are passionate about, or pursuing involvement with religious events/groups. Finding purpose both on and off the job is an important part of the balancing act.
2. Invest in relationships with individuals outside of the profession (while also maintaining your relationships with those inside the profession). This typically goes hand-in-hand with tip #1 because when we pursue fulfilling activities, we typically are around others who are passionate about and value the same things we do. Building a network of relationships with people both on and off the job is key to having a strong support network.
3. If you are struggling with something, talk to a peer that you can trust about it. Alternatively, be open with peers about struggles you’ve experienced, as well as any triumphs you might have had over these struggles. The domino effect that inevitably follows when a first responder takes the leap of bravery by sharing their struggles with other peers never ceases to amaze me. This inadvertently leads to an emboldening of others who then feel more comfortable talking openly about their struggles, which promotes help-seeking. In my work with first responders, I find that many are simultaneously shocked and comforted to learn that they are not alone in what they are experiencing.
The traits covered in this article are admirable qualities, and I’m so grateful for the first responders who possess them and selflessly serve their communities. At the same time, there are two sides to every coin, and although these traits are an overall net positive, sometimes there are unintended consequences. Being aware of when the scales might be tipped and actively engaging in behaviors to balance them out is key to building and maintaining a healthy foundation on and off the job.
Berninger, A., Webber, M. P., Cohen, H. W., Gustave, J., Lee, R., Niles, J. K., ... & Prezant, D. J. (2010). Trends of elevated PTSD risk in firefighters exposed to the World Trade Center disaster: 2001–2005. Public Health Reports, 125(4), 556-566.
Jones, S., Agud, K., & McSweeney, J. (2020). Barriers and facilitators to seeking mental health care among first responders: "Removing the Darkness". Journal of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, 26(1), 43–54. https://doi.org/10.1177/1078390319871997.
Malone, K. M., Oquendo, M. A., Haas, G. L., Ellis, S. P., Li, S., & Mann,
J. J. (2000). Protective factors against suicidal acts in major depression:
Reasons for living. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 157, 1084–
About the Author:
Brooke Bartlett, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and the CEO/owner of Center for Trauma, Anxiety, and Stress Inc. In addition to being a trauma specialist, Dr. Bartlett is highly specialized in working with first responders and has published over 20 peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals based off her research on first responder mental health. A major focus of her professional work is promoting first responder wellness by assisting departments and organizations in the creation and implementation of mental wellness programs through training, consultation, and on-call critical incident services. Dr. Bartlett also delivers speaking engagements to a wide variety of audiences and is a subject matter expert and content developer of first responder-oriented material. In addition, she is a professor of psychology at several higher education institutions.