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  • Writer's pictureCircle of Change Mailbox

The Struggle for Mental Health Support Among First Responders

In the world of first responders, the heroic individuals who rush towards danger to protect and save lives, there exists a silent battle that often goes unnoticed—the struggle to seek mental health help. Despite the intense and often traumatic nature of their work, many first responders find it challenging to reach out for the support they need. Understanding these barriers is crucial because acknowledging and addressing mental health concerns among first responders is not just important; it's imperative.

One primary obstacle is the pervasive stigma surrounding mental health within the first responder community. The ingrained culture of toughness and resilience can create an environment where admitting vulnerability is seen as a sign of weakness. Many first responders fear that acknowledging mental health issues may jeopardize their professional standing or hinder their ability to perform their duties. As a result, they may choose to suffer in silence rather than seek the help they desperately need.

The nature of the job itself contributes to the difficulty in seeking mental health support. First responders are regularly exposed to high-stress situations, traumatic events, and life-or-death scenarios. The accumulation of these experiences can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression. However, the demanding schedules and the perceived lack of time can make it challenging for first responders to prioritize their mental well-being. The constant need to be "on call" and the unpredictable nature of emergencies may discourage individuals from taking the necessary steps to address their mental health concerns.

Another significant factor is the fear of professional repercussions. The fear of being labeled as unfit for duty or facing potential consequences for seeking mental health help can prevent first responders from reaching out. In some cases, the fear of damaging one's career may lead individuals to downplay their struggles, further exacerbating their mental health issues.

Despite these challenges, it is crucial to emphasize the importance of seeking mental health support for first responders. Untreated mental health issues can lead to decreased job performance, strained relationships, and even more severe consequences such as substance abuse and suicidal ideation. By breaking down the stigma and fostering a culture that prioritizes mental well-being, we can create an environment where first responders feel supported in seeking the help they need.

The difficulty first responders face in seeking mental health help is a complex issue rooted in societal norms, professional culture, and the demanding nature of their work. However, the importance of addressing these challenges cannot be overstated.

"In 2022, we launched our first ever First Responder Dog Program for Circle of Change," says Executive Director, Erin Rabon. "It has been the first time that we ever were fully funded to offer free dog training to an at-risk group, where we could not fill a class.

In spite of the delay in getting the program up-and-running, Circle of Change remains committed to getting first responders to their First Responder Dog Program at 6:45 pm on Monday nights.

"As we meet more and more of these everyday heroes, we better understand how difficult it can be to join a class dedicated to mental health," says Rabon. "What's special about us though, is it is all about the dogs during class. We come together, train dogs together and everyone leaves feeling much better than when they arrived."

The First Responder Dog Program is funded by the Winnebago County Community Mental Health Board through the 1/2 cent tax initiative. First Responders interested in joining us for dog classes can contact us at (815) 200-9020 or email us at

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