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Tough public sector jobs and their mental health risks

A couple of weeks ago, we wrote a column for Governing magazine that focused on the mental health issues that are all-to-often confronted by the men and women who perform some of the toughest tasks in America’s cities, counties and states: police officers, firefighters, emergency workers and correctional officers. We recommend that you take a look at the Governing piece, but thought that you might find some of the highlights we found about the topic in our research to be of interest. Six follow here:

  • Over the course of the last couple of years, more firefighters died in suicides than they did actually fighting fires.

  • In some cases, workers who take these dangerous jobs work long, intense hours — sometimes as much as 48 hours shifts (although they do get interrupted sleep time during those shifts.

  • There can be a reluctance for stressed employees to speak up, for fear that such vulnerability to normal human reactions could conceivably put their job at risk.

  • There’s a minimal amount of rigorous work on what works to counteract stresses. Recognition of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and suicide risk in the military has influenced the recognition of similar problems for public sector employees exposed to violence and traumatic events. But government-run programs to respond to PTSD and other mental health problems have generally not caught up to needs.

  • Non-governmental organizations such as the Code Green Campaign, which offers peer counseling and other support services to firefighters and emergency medical service workers, and the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, provide much-needed help and research.

  • Some enlightened communities are trying to take better care of these invaluable employees’ mental health. As the Governing piece related, “in Stockton, Calif., police learn to talk about their feelings and are encouraged to seek peer support or see therapists as part of the department’s wellness program and Phoenix is often cited for its “Friends Helping Friends” program, which offers firefighters counseling and resources to deal with issues like drug and alcohol abuse, depression, family problems and stress.


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