5 Mental Health Must-Knows for Department Leads

Healthy work culture starts at the top. Departments can do better with wellness. So, we have some mental health must-knows aimed at department leads to share.

We understand leadership has many levels, so this is a broad overview aimed mostly at on-site—not necessarily on-scene—leadership. However, these things are beneficial for all leadership from supervisors to administrators, so pay attention.

Leadership Roles

There’s a number of shapes and sizes for leadership structures. There are paid call departments or volunteer departments with one or two full-time chiefs. Some have a full cast of administration that have never met their boots-on-the-ground responders. Some departments have one station and others have multiple.

One thing they all have in common is that leadership, no matter the structure, is responsible for overall wellbeing and function of the department.

Of course, leadership has other important functions like managing budget, staying staffed, maintaining compliance, and more. But we’re going to focus on the most ignored category—it’s kind of our thing—and that’s mental health.

Since a body can’t function well unless it’s wholly healthy, the same is true for a department. And since a body is driven by the mind, the mind must be healthy too.

What does this point to?

Leadership must take responsibility for not only the physical but also the mental wellbeing of its department members.

With that in mind, let’s look at five mental health must-knows for our leaders, and how they can use them to assure a more functional department and fully healthy responders.

5 Mental Health Must-Knows for Department Leads

While there’s a number of mental health must-knows when it comes to your responders, we’re just focusing on these five. There’s plenty to work on within them, but if you feel your department is already crushing it, reach out to us and ask about our First Responder Academy to take it a step further. After all, there’s always more to learn.

For now, here’s the five our leadership team chose to share today.


Wait, training? But we do that all the time.

Jen Anderson, our CEO, weighs in on what she’s learned working with multiple departments across various first responder factions across the country. (Seriously, her experience holds some weight.)

“We need to do better in terms of training before the difficult conversations. It’s inevitable that you’re going to have difficult conversations. Stop making mental health a dirty word. Let’s move beyond being ashamed and be okay with it.”

There are so many opportunities for mental health training for leadership and responders. Programs like VirTra or Mental Health First Aid, or resources like those the IAFF offers educate and train first responders on mental health to help support departments and reduce risk of mental health issues.


The word itself makes some responders cringe, but vulnerability is a large step towards trust and a major mental health must-know. Leadership doesn’t typically like to show vulnerability for fear of seeming weak, but even a simple story of your own mishaps can open the door to better communication. Ever get in trouble of messing up the hose or have an incident in taser training? Share that and see how moods lighten. We’re all human.

Vulnerability shows you’re in it with them. Jen encourages leaders to sit with their responders through trainings and be part of what they experience. When it’s clear leadership is actually leading by example, everyone starts to follow.

If you want to really learn about vulnerability and its benefits, follow Brené Brown.


But weren’t the first two mental health must-knows about conversation? Well, yes, sort of. Those are about training to have those conversations and learning to be vulnerable to help open up those conversations. Now you need to have those conversations.

Don’t wait for them to fall in your lap. Also, don’t force them on someone. That’s just awkward. But show that you’re willing to have them and offer plenty of opportunities. Be prepared for those unexpected moments when they do just fall in your lap. Be ready to pause your important day to listen to the most important person in the room – the first responder who needs you.


Many leaders claim to have an open door policy but responders are still hesitant. Maybe they feel you’re unapproachable or they’re afraid to interrupt a phone call. Read the room and check your people. Invite them in for a chat once in a while and offer an opportunity for them to open up. Could be something small or big, but you’ll never know if you don’t check in.

“Don’t just say it,” Jen says, “cultivate it; live it.”

As they realize you’re serious about your open door policy and you are, in fact, accessible, they will trust you and approach you more readily. Then, you can hear concerns before they grow too big.


Here’s the number one mental health must-know: mental health challenges exist and they exist outside the mental ward. In fact, everyone has challenges and everyone tries their best to function through.

Challenges can be large or small, but the sooner they’re acknowledged and faced, the better they can be overcome.

“It’s leadership’s responsibility to ensure health and wellness is up to par,” Jen says, “and mental health is part of that. Putting your mask on first, being the example, opens the door.”

This shows that you acknowledge and accept that life and the job are challenging and you want to face those challenges–not bury them. You want your department to see that you’re willing to handle those concerns the same as you would a physical injury.

Mental Health Must-Knows and Must-Dos

As we wrap up Mental Health Awareness month, we hope these mental health must-knows hit a point or two that helps your department grow in resiliency, retention, and fortifies a stronger working relationship among your responders. Remember, it starts at the top.