Today, September 11, 2018, marks the 17th anniversary of the tragic terrorist attacks that brought down the World Trade Center’s iconic twin towers and led to the deaths of 2,753 people including 343 firefighters and paramedics.
Nearly two decades later, thousands of first responders are still battling the consequences of their rescue efforts that fateful day with health conditions such as respiratory complications, various types of cancer and mental health problems. Earlier this year, the American Heart Association released a study that tied PTSD to heart attacks and strokes in civilian 9/11 responders.
As the 9/11 attacks reveal, first responders are on the front lines of traumatic, extraordinary and catastrophic events. These events are both physically and mentally demanding; and their mental strain is compounded by everyday stress, which takes a toll on responders’ mental wellbeing. Considering the nature of their job, it is not surprising that in a recent Harris Poll survey with the University of Phoenix nearly all first responders (93%) agree that mental health is as important as physical health and more than eight in 10 (83%) believe that people who receive counseling generally get better.
The survey also reveals the disheartening fact that seeking help for mental health issues is still stigmatized. 47% of those surveyed say there will be repercussions on the job for seeking professional counseling. Among those who feel this way, the repercussions of seeking counseling cited most often included receiving different treatment from coworkers (53%) or supervisors (52%) and being perceived as weak by colleagues/peers (46%). Nonetheless, despite the stigma, many first responders are still open to getting the help they need. The study showed that 67% have either sought or considered professional counseling.
According to the report, first responders can be more open to getting help if those around them are willing to discuss mental health. 82% say they would be encouraged to seek professional counseling if a team leader spoke about their own experience. Peers have an even greater influence as 89% of first responders say they would be encouraged to seek help for themselves if a close colleague, friend or family member spoke up.
“Historically, first responders have worked in a culture where you are expected to keep quiet and handle it,” says Dr. Dutton, program director for University of Phoenix College of Humanities and Sciences. “That approach does not work and if mental health issues are not addressed, they can affect job performance, family life and even physical health. Often it just takes one trusted person speaking up to change perceptions. On the job and in the mental health field, we need to provide a safe space where first responders can discuss mental health confidentially and without judgment or repercussions.”
Several programs are trying to keep track of the health problems plaguing those directly affected by the 9/11 attacks in New York and its aftermath. For instance, first responders and loved ones seeking help can reach out to organizations such as The World Trade Center Health Program Clinical Center of Excellence at Mount Sinai, which provides free medical monitoring, treatment, mental health services and benefits counseling for 9/11 responders and volunteers. It also documents the physical and mental health issues that those who were at the 9/11 site are still facing.