Stigma Amongst First Responders/Medical Professionals

Updated: Mar 24

The stigma surrounding mental illness is real. More and more awareness is being brought to mental health but stigma is still very present. That being said, stigma is even present within the medical community and among first responders. The very people who respond to mental health crises often lack the training, compassion and understanding to adequately support community members going through mental health challenges.

I’ve compiled a list of moments and quotes from people who have experienced this stigma first hand, who have encountered medical professionals and first responders who did not respond appropriately to a mental health situation:


“When we filed the missing person report for a family member, they said that “step 2” of their investigation would be calling the hospitals to see if she was admitted to any of them and they never ended up calling the hospitals. Our family member had been at the hospital for 8 hours by the time we learned where she was. The police didn’t take her disappearance seriously because she had substance use and mental health issues – they didn’t even get to “step 2” even though the first 24 hours after someone disappears is the most critical time.”


“A nurse shrugged and told us “This isn’t a jail” when we asked how our family member got an illegal substance in the hospital psych ward.”


“My friend was going through a difficult time due partially to his BPD diagnosis. We thought going to the ER was the best thing to do because that’s what they always say to do to get help. He was apprehensive but we convinced him. When we arrived the stress of what was already happening plus the hospital was a lot. He lost his words and was just focusing on the bare essential – to breathe. He was clearly in distress. The doctors came and asked many questions, which were very difficult for him to answer as he had cuts all over his arms and chest. They cleaned up the cuts and asked why he decided to come in on a Sunday. What they didn’t know or care to understand was that this day was when he reached rock bottom and felt so scared and needed relief from his own brain. He finally took the jump to get help. The doctors criticized him for coming in on a Sunday night, feeling it was suspicious, like he was trying to get out of something. They told him if he didn’t have a plan he wasn’t going to do anything. He did have a plan he just didn’t want to share it with someone who was already looking at him and treating him as if he wasn’t human. They discharged him the next day, with no extra supports.”


“I had gone to the woods to kill myself. I was drinking rye and knocking back as many Tylenol as I could as I walked deeper into the trail. I started to feel faint, I sat down in the leaves and kept drinking. My family sent police looking for me and amidst the sounds of helicopters and dogs, I heard two officers approach me. I was barely conscious. They loaded me onto a stretcher and took me into the ambulance. I was shaking and convulsing from the drugs and the trauma of it all and one of the officers said “That’s not a seizure. Stop. Show’s over kid.” When I become more lucid I made it clear I didn’t appreciate being treated with such disdain and I was strapped to the stretcher as I was now considering uncooperative and a threat.”


“My partner at the time took me to the mental health hospital in our town one night. I had been self-harming and my arms were dripping with blood. I no longer had any control and felt helpless and worthless. When we saw a psychiatrist at the hospital and asked for support, he said “he had seen worse” and seemed uninterested. What this told me was “cut deeper next time and maybe I’ll help you.””


“I told my therapist that I was feeling suicidal and had a plan. I asked for him to find a place to check me into or another similar option. He sent me home and said he would look into it and call me. I went home with my plan in mind, and eventually got a call from him. He said he couldn’t find anything but if it was really bad to maybe just go to the ER. I sunk to the floor and thought “even the man paid to care doesn’t care.””


"Regarding borderline personality disorder, medication compliance and treatment, a psychiatrist told me "It's okay, you'll grow out of it eventually". This was the same doctor who wouldn't diagnose me."

I am by no means invalidating the work, care and dedication of those professionals who treat mental health clients and patients with dignity and understanding. There are some amazing people out there. I merely want to point out an issue that exists system wide and needs to be addressed. More mental health training is required, more consulting with people who have lived experience is necessary – medical professionals and first responders need to have a true understanding of the variables at play when faced with a mental health crisis. Mental health crises are first and foremost experienced by the person who has the mental health challenges. Crises may be difficult, painful and overwhelming for responders, caregivers and loved ones but the person who experiences the mental illness is at the crux of the situation and deserves to be treated with dignity, respect and not to be dismissed. This has to change.

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