Public attention is focused sharply on the lives of military personnel and first responders because of ongoing reports of suicide among these men and women. Politicians and bureaucrats of various stripes have been forced to take action while a plethora of theories have been offered to explain the plight of these men and women. Theories about pre-existing conditions (e.g., childhood abuse or neglect), concurrent stressors (family pressures and financial distress), disordered brains, and even self-stigma (self critique and denial of problems) have all been advanced as the ‘cause’ and even though these factors may contribute to distress among first responders, they offer only a partial explanation. But, what about the workplace itself? We do not appear to be courageous enough or mature enough to look honestly at the actual day-to-day context of these workplaces, including the value systems, the consequences of basic training models, unspoken but shared codes of ‘manly’ conduct, and supervisory practices as major sources of distress among these men and women.
Emotional suppression, bravado, pride, self-reliance, and dependability are among the most sacred values steeped within these organizations and handed down to young trainees. While these values and codes of conduct may well be necessary to get difficult jobs done, the cost is that these work places can become inhuman and these very values run counter to the requirements of good mental health. I think we are faced with a fundamental dilemma – we either will continue to try to train first responders to become tougher and even less human or the nature and organization of these workplaces may require substantial and fundamental changes. We may need to humanize these places again.
In the increasingly demanding workplaces for first responders and the military, there is considerable attention on professionalism which ironically can turn these places into ‘soul-less’, rationalized places where the focus is on one’s ability to do the job. There is not much leniency or time to treat co-workers as human beings. There is not much room for people to have a bad day or to be emotionally upset following a bad call because of organizational pressures and paranoia over public scrutiny and possible legal actions. Workplaces can turn into emotional pressure cookers – a working wasteland.
Maybe a little less focus on ‘what’s his/her problem’ and a little attention to ‘what’s our problem’ could go a long way in reminding everyone that at the end of the day we are all just human beings – nothing more, nothing less.
John J. Whelan
John J. Whelan, Ph.D., is the author of Going Crazy in the Green Machine, available now on FriesenPress.