Opinion editor's note: This article, part of our New Voices collection, was written by a first-time contributor to Star Tribune Opinion. For more information about our efforts to continually expand the range of views we publish, see startribune.com/opinion/newvoices.


Have you seen the stats about mental health since the onset of COVID? It's staggering. There has been a 25% increase in anxiety and depression worldwide since March 2020. If there is ever a time to normalize conversations about mental health, it's now.

This is especially true among the first responders who serve our communities each day. As a psychologist who has spent 15 years working with people who experience extreme adversity, I have the privilege of assisting some of Minnesota's finest public safety professionals.

Most of us cannot truly comprehend the inner havoc working as a first responder wreaks, including the effects on their families. Haunted by the sights, sounds and visceral experiences of the calls they respond to, first responders' stress and trauma accumulate. Brain functioning changes. Their nervous systems are stuck on overdrive. Sleeplessness and the physical demands of their work make resetting an uphill battle. Trauma has a ripple effect that contributes to illnesses and affects relationships as one becomes more reactive, irritable and impulsive, suffering emotionally and physically.

We know first responders have higher rates of stress-related conditions like depression, anxiety, PTSD and substance abuse. Those conditions may even result in thoughts of suicide. First responders tend to die earlier than the rest of us (by an average of approximately 20 years).

Service calls are up in the profession, and recruitment and retention is down. Departments are short staffed with required overtime. Simply put, first responders are doing more with less. The perception of, and at times reality of, diminishing public support has caused many in the field to lose pride in their work, a job closely tied to their values of service, their self-worth and financial security. It also risks a chilling self-fulfilling prophecy. "Who will be there for the defenseless victims if I don't go to work?" asks one officer.

The vast majority of Minnesota's 40,000 public safety professionals are motivated by a deep desire to care for others. They are trained how to do their jobs but rarely trained on how to care for themselves. This must change, and it starts with compassion and conversation.

It's about caring and looking out for the people who care and look out for us. It begins with local and state leaders normalizing the conversation around mental health, investing in education and treatment, and better understanding the experiences of our first responders. Supporting our first responders' mental health has a direct effect on the outcomes we seek for our communities. When we stop having compassion for those who suffer, our society suffers.

How can you help normalize conversations about mental health?

Kiri Faul, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and owner of Faul Psychological in Eagan.