Georgia FirstNet: Mental Health

Dr. Anna Courie

Tuesday, May 31st, 2022

Not many people can understand or empathize with the things first responders encounter during an emergency or even on a daily basis. Public safety service comes with great personal sacrifice, and many first responders silently carry the burden. Trauma can be difficult to discuss with others. First responders are dedicated to protecting others and too often, put themselves at the bottom of the priority list.

People don’t call 9-1-1 because they’re having a good day. And those experiences, those images that stay rooted in the mind, take a toll. Compared to the general population, first responders experience higher rates of depression, post-traumatic stress, burnout, anxiety and other mental health issues. And in law enforcement, one study found a more than 20-year difference in life expectancy compared to the average American male.

It’s also estimated that 20-25% of all first responders experience post-traumatic stress. And that statistic was established before the COVID-19 pandemic and the extra challenges it added to the already challenging jobs done by firefighters, EMS, law enforcement, emergency medical personnel and other public safety officials. Stress can be a protective factor in the face of life-threatening events, but too many first responders go on to internalize and ignore traumatic experiences.

These staggering statistics are just a few of the reasons why public safety agencies are focusing more on first responder health and wellness. To complement their efforts, FirstNet established the FirstNet Health & Wellness Coalition. FirstNet®, Built with AT&T is public safety’s only nationwide network created with and for first responders. As public safety’s communications partner, we work closely with the women and men on the front lines and recognize the need for a diverse array of services, tools and resources. The Health & Wellness Coalition brings together more than two dozen member organizations that represent more than 1.3 million first responders, and its priorities were developed from the input of over 350 first responders.

The coalition recently led to us enlisting some furry friends for help. Through the FirstNet Response Operations Group, we launched the “ROG the Dog” animal-assisted therapy initiative earlier this year. There are over 30 therapy animals stationed across the country specifically trained to support the health and well-being of first responders.

To date, more than 2,500 first responders in the field have interacted with ROG the Dog across the country. Studies have shown that interacting with animals can improve coping and recovery, enhance morale, decrease stress and reduce the effects of PTSD and emotional distress.

Mental health care has recently been a top priority in Georgia with state leaders rallying behind this critical issue. Under Georgia House Speaker David Ralston’s leadership, the Georgia General Assembly passed transformational legislation this year that will expand access to mental health care for Georgians.  

Many resources exist that can improve coping and recovery, enhance morale, decrease stress and reduce emotional distress. For chiefs, administrators and agency heads, it is never too late to institute departmental initiatives and trainings that support the health and wellness of first responders with organizations such as the All Clear Foundation or the Georgia Office of Public Safety Support, an arm of the Georgia Department of Public Safety created to provide support and mental health care for Georgia first responders and public safety officials. Additionally, numerous safety and wellness apps like Lighthouse Health & Wellness, ResponderRel8, BJA VALOR Officer Safety, The Better App: Mental Health and others provide easy and efficient access to information and support services.

Raising awareness and highlighting the challenges are critical steps towards changing the stigma around first responder mental health. Seeking help and creating an open environment that encourages conversation about these topics can increase resiliency, help build better working environments, safer departments and healthier individuals.

There is no better way to say thank you to all the women and men who put the lives of others before their own than to make first responder health and wellness a top priority.

Dr. Anna Courie is director of Responder Wellness, FirstNet Program at AT&T.