Starting & Sustaining Tough Talks About First Responder Mental Health

May 21, 2024
Jack Molloy, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Motorola Solutions and board member of the Motorola Solutions Foundation, spoke to two members of The Quell Foundation.

By Jack Molloy, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Motorola Solutions, board member of the Motorola Solutions Foundation

First responders run toward danger while the rest of us run away from it, putting their own safety on the line to protect and serve others. From the moment an emergency call comes in to the time a report is closed, multiple professionals - officers, firefighters, EMS, 9-1-1 dispatchers, emergency managers and more - play a role in its resolution. This repeated exposure to trauma takes its toll on mental health. First responders are up to five times more likely to experience depression and post-traumatic stress disorder than the general public. However, more than half of first responders believe that they will face career repercussions for seeking mental health support. 

As the son of a police officer, I grew up watching first-hand how my father carried his identity as a first responder into different aspects of his life. During Mental Health Awareness Month, we need to work together to reduce the stigma around seeking help and make sure our first responders have the tools and support necessary to find help. The Motorola Solutions Foundation is proud to support charitable organizations who are working to reduce the stigma associated with mental health support, for first responders and their families. 

Below is my conversation with Kevin M. Lynch, CEO and founder of The Quell Foundation, and Monica Molt, a licensed clinician who works with The Quell Foundation’s First Responder Resiliance Project (FRRP) helping develop educational materials for public safety departments. We discussed the unique challenges first responders face, why being open about mental health is critical and how departments can start and sustain difficult conversations around mental health. 

Tell me more about The Quell Foundation. Has your mission always been first responder mental health? 

Kevin: My interest in mental health began close to home. My son faced some mental health challenges and spent a fair amount of time in prison at a very young age as a result. I wanted to understand what was happening and get him the support he needed, so I wrote my graduate thesis on how a scarcity of mental health resources leads to higher rates of incarceration, drug use and addiction.

When I founded The Quell Foundation in December 2015, my initial focus was to reduce the stigma around mental health as it relates to these issues. I figured that if people could share their stories with each other, it would encourage more to seek support and treatment.

In 2019, we expanded Quell’s mission to include the first responder community with the First Responder Resilience Project (FRRP). I spent 12 years in the U.S. Navy Submarine Force. While I’m not a first responder, military service and public safety work are both mission-driven. That dedication and service become part of your identity, and so it made sense to include first responders in our mission as well.

Quell released a peer-reviewed documentary, Lift the Mask: First Responders Sound the Alarm, and have taken it on the road to public safety departments across the country. We also offer departments an educational program, made by first responders and reviewed by clinicians, to help first responders recognize, heal and maintain their mental health. Instead of a general message telling them how to care for their mental health after a mass shooting, one module features a SWAT Team member who responded to the Pulse nightclub shooting sharing his story, for example. 

How does stigma around mental health impact first responders? 

Kevin: Between 2018 and 2023, an average of nearly 17 first responders died by suicide every month, or 1,233 over this time period. They’re responding to possibly the most traumatic event to ever happen to someone, but for them, it’s just another Tuesday. Repeated exposure to this kind of trauma can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. That takes a toll on first responders as well as their families. 

I will never look at an ambulance with its lights on, flying down the road, in the same way. I used to think: is whoever in the back of that going to be okay? Now I also think: I hope those EMTs can process that trauma because I know as soon as they drop off that patient, they're going to go out and see another one. In many cases, first responders - 9-1-1- dispatchers especially - are a group of people that seldom, if ever, get closure. 

Monica: As a first responder, your job is to remain calm and try to keep people calm during their most frightening moments. From call to call, you're right onto another incident, another traumatic situation. That adds up and takes a toll. We need to acknowledge that having mental health struggles is a human experience. No one is immune and first responders are more susceptible because of the nature of their work. We need to create this culture that normalizes that and actually looks at first responders as humans, not just as their uniform. 

To that point - first responders are always “on.” How does that present a unique challenge for them and their departments? 

Monica: First responders are also members of the communities they serve, so major incidents impact them on multiple levels. My practice is based in Alabama, so hurricane season is top of mind for people here. During a natural disaster, first responders are not only responding to these disasters as professionals but oftentimes on a personal level. It's their friends, their families and their communities that are directly affected by these disasters and in need of rebuilding.

Kevin: First responders have a camaraderie that never exhausts. You will always be law enforcement. You'll always be a cop, a firefighter or an EMT. It’s who you are, it's part of your identity. Many ask, “If I’m not a first responder, then who am I?” That can make asking for help tough.

What message do you have for first responders who may be hesitant to talk more openly about their mental health?

Monica: I wish I could tell you that the stigma around mental health concerns is completely gone. We’re not at that point, but we’ve made a lot of progress.

What I’ll say to first responders is this: Not talking about your mental health concerns is still going to impact your career just in a different way. First responders tend to blame themselves if they're not doing well. They’re not to blame for the trauma they experience. Yet you still have a responsibility to take care of your mental health. If you broke your ankle, it may not be your fault, but it is your responsibility to take care of yourself and rest and recover. Mental health is no different. 

Kevin: The impact on your life - not just your career - is far greater if you do not talk about it. 

What can public safety agencies do to support first responders and reduce the stigma around discussing mental health?

Kevin: I think we're at a paradigm shift around how we talk about mental health in public safety, and many are taking the right steps forward. Departments should be building a healthy culture around mental health and making systemic changes to assist those seeking help. More than anything, they need to help folks recognize that asking for help is a sign of resilience, not weakness.

It’s important to lead from the front on this issue. Public safety leaders vocalizing their experiences can help reduce the stigma in their departments. Speaking in personal terms like, “This is how this experience impacted me,” or “Here's what I'm doing to address this issue I’m facing,” helps people feel more comfortable about speaking up about their own challenges.

Monica: I’ve had chiefs call me and say “Our department just responded to a mass shooting, can you come help us talk about it?”

Kevin: Starting the conversation and keeping it going is important. At one of our panels, we once asked a roomful of officers: “If your partner or another member of your department asked you to stay back to help them process something traumatic, how many of you would do so?” Almost everybody raised their hand. But when the question is flipped: “How many of you would ask one of your colleagues to stay behind to help you process?” No one raised their hand. So many first responders are willing to help others, but are reluctant to be vulnerable themselves. It’s on leadership to help change that culture so they feel confident taking that step.

What resources does The Quell Foundation offer to reduce the stigma around mental health in public safety?

Monica: Whether it’s talking to first responders about mental health directly or compiling a list of resources to help departments find licensed clinicians, Quell offers so many incredible resources for first responders.

Kevin: Beyond the documentary screenings and panel discussions I mentioned, we’re expanding our FRRP educational program to include even more specialized modules after feedback from public safety leaders. These training sessions are made for first responders by first responders - by officers for officers, for dispatchers by dispatchers, and so on. Thanks to the support we’ve received from donors, we’re planning to roll these out later this year.

How do individual donations and those from groups like the Motorola Solutions Foundation help support this mission?

Kevin: It’s contributions from groups like yours that are helping us build out more specialized educational programs. Departments oftentimes do not have the resources or budget to bring us to talk with their staff. I want folks to recognize that without these donations we wouldn’t have the ability to bring our resources to as many departments and start these hard conversations. 

The Quell Foundation has awarded scholarships to more than 2,000 students who share in our mission to reduce the stigma around mental health challenges. This year, we are proud to have surpassed $3.5 million distributed since 2016, to postsecondary students in the following situations: those who lost a sibling or caregiver to suicide, those living with and in treatment for their own mental health condition, those studying to become a mental health professional and also those who lost their first responder parent to suicide or line of duty death. The work we’re doing here is generational, and the impact of these donations is as well. We are addressing the mental healthcare provider shortage and we’re developing programming that will resonate with first responders and their families for the long-term, and we’re honored to do so.

About the Author

Jack Molloy is executive vice president and chief operating officer for Motorola Solutions. He leads the worldwide sales and services organization as well as product development for the company’s land mobile radio portfolio.

Molloy has held multiple leadership positions of increasing responsibility during his 29-year career with the company in various disciplines, including sales, product management, systems integration and managed and support services.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing from Northern Illinois University and a master’s degree in business administration from Loyola University.

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