What are mental injuries?
For years, emergency workers have answered the call for a unique type of public service in which running into harm’s way becomes a daily reality. With this reality, comes the likelihood that these workers will be faced with dangers or disturbing situations to which average citizens are not typically exposed. Each and every one of these exposures carries the possibility for an accompanying and potentially life-altering mental (psychological) injury.
What is a mental injury? Simply put, a mental injury is the brain’s reaction to a troubling situation. These injuries are frequently generalized as Occupational Stress Injuries (OSIs), which can often be temporal and worked through fairly easily by just talking with a close friend about the issue. At other times, treatment might be needed through more formalized psychotherapeutic intervention. Ignoring mental injuries, leaving them untreated and/or allowing them to build over time, can result in more complex problems such as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Historically, front- line emergency service workers have felt the need to ignore the effects of troubling incidents and life-threatening situations (exposures) they have faced and to “soldier on”. Emergency workers who admitted to suffering the ill-effects of such exposures often found themselves ostracized and considered weak by their peers; ultimately they were stigmatized. As a result, the vast majority of emergency workers hid their feelings and often ignored the treatable symptoms of mental injuries. Many of those who ignored their feelings and symptoms have suffered in silence with depression, anxiety, PTSD and other stress-exposure related disorders. We now realize that many have tried to cope by using alcohol or drugs as their lives have often spiralled downward. Long-term impacts have included complete isolation, addiction, marital dissolution, domestic violence and all too often, suicide.
No one seems to question physical injuries, as they are clearly visible and often easy to understand. Unfortunately, mental injuries are not visible and are certainly not simple to comprehend. However mental injuries, like physical injuries, such as fractures or infected cuts, can result in complications much worse than the initial issues presented if not treated in a timely fashion. This comparative understanding illustrates the need for emergency service workers to seek treatment, no matter how simple the treatment may seem, before these mental injuries can fester and devolve into significant disorders that can be much more difficult to treat.
To underscore, everyone needs to understand that treatment does help; mental injuries do not have to destroy lives; and those suffering with mental injuries are typically highly capable and able to continue their employment, with or without accommodations, while undergoing treatment.
Strides have been made by emergency services to recognize the presence of mental injuries but much more can be done. Employers must learn to better understand the effects of mental injuries and work with their effected employees to determine best approaches to help them in their recovery. Effected employees must not be taken out of the recovery equation through forced accommodations unless absolutely necessary and such necessitated accommodation should be determined with support of psychotherapeutic professionals.
The simple and most obvious solution to such base issues is one found in an approach rooted in education, dialogue and compassion. Finding solutions to mental health issues, whether innate or resulting from a mental injury, can only be found in these approaches.
An environment where identified mental injuries are considered issues of weakness, that all too often signify inability and instability to peers and senior administrators, is a work environment rife with negativity and dysfunction. These false perceptions create a negative stigma and, in turn, impede avenues to prevention and treatment and only serve to limit the potential of our vital, front-line emergency public services.
Unfortunately this negative environment has been well entrenched in the world of emergency services because of historical and outdated perceptions. As a result, personal, peer and career stigma has become very significant issue, for emergency service workers everywhere when a mental injury has occurred. It is time that we change this reality. It’s time that we tackle this debilitating mental-health based stigma head on, once and for all.