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Never forget those impacted by 9/11: the critical role of federal agencies in first responders’ health and well-being

September 11, 2023
  • By: Dr. Tifani Gleeson, chief medical officer, Sedgwick Government Solutions

On September 11, 2001, nearly 3,000 lives were lost in a tragic attack on our nation. Yet, from amid the darkness emerged tremendous human courage. Among the heroes were thousands of brave first responders who ran towards the wreckage — putting their own lives in danger to selflessly help others.

Though the rubble has long been cleared, many of these individuals still, to this day, feel the impact of what they lived through. Three-quarters of 9/11 first responders report at least one physical or mental health condition directly linked to their exposure. According to a 2020 study of more than 16,000 World Trade Center responders, nearly half surveyed reported a need for mental healthcare. While the number is staggering, this is just a small sample size. More than 91,000 rescue, recovery and clean-up workers spent days and weeks at Ground Zero. Thousands more have likely gone unreported and have yet to seek the help they need. 

But they don’t have to address it alone.


Agencies and organizations have a responsibility to educate their employees about the mental resources readily available to them, help them feel secure in their jobs, and erase the stigma surrounding mental health issues. Even with the positive changes and advancements in mental health awareness since 2001, stigmas and misunderstanding persist.

A good place agencies can start in addressing this challenge is to educate the federal workforce about the Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) they can take advantage of 24/7 at no cost to them. Licensed professionals are ready to help employees navigate any mental health struggles they may be experiencing.

Erase the stigma

An underlying challenge is that employees may be hesitant to utilize these resources out of concern that their employer or colleagues will judge them for seeking support or see it as a sign of weakness. It is critical that federal agencies prioritize privacy and put employees’ minds at ease by emphasizing the anonymity of these programs.

First responders tend to be skeptical of mental health programs, as they may worry about losing security clearances or being deemed unfit to carry a firearm. Misperceptions and stigma surround mental health and the government’s security-clearance process. A recent survey found nearly two-thirds of respondents were very or somewhat concerned about the role their mental health history could play in a background investigation. Federal agencies must communicate to individuals that seeking mental health treatment is not an automatic disqualifier for security clearance. In fact, seeking care early actually reduces the chances fitness of duty would be impacted. Employers should encourage first responders to seek help before they reach a crisis point or forgo care altogether.

Reach out regularly

Federal agencies should also foster connection and community through frequent interaction and engagement. For instance, managers should have open conversations with employees to build trust in established systems. Where appropriate, they can emphasize that utilization of EAP resources is not only supported by the agency, but also normal and healthy for all types of employees. Agencies can use regularly scheduled pop-up reminders to inform the workforce about various ways they can pursue mental healthcare. Messages can highlight the importance and benefits of self-care — not only for the individual but for the agency as a whole. Mental health provider shortages are lingering across the country amid rising demand for behavioral health specialists, so it’s especially important for first responders and other essential federal employees to take advantage of EAPs and counselors already in place.

On September 11, 2001, first responders were there for Americans in a time of need; now, it is time to provide them the support they deserve. Our nation’s rallying call to “never forget” must include not only the American lives lost on that day, but also the thousands of first responders who are still with us and struggling with their mental health and well-being. Federal agencies can reshape the narrative around mental health by ensuring resources are in place, available without any judgment or repercussions, and are implemented with a protected layer of privacy. Treating our nation’s heroes with care and empathy and setting them up for success is the right thing to do.

Learn more about how federal agencies can better provide mental health support to first responders. Also, keep an eye on our Sedgwick Government Solutions blog series for topics impacting the public sector.