Mental Health Resources to Support First Responders
February 1, 2022
Workers in helping professions often care for people who are in crisis and have to deal with the secondary trauma resulting from addressing those situations. Their work can put their own mental health at risk.
“I do advocate for emotional wellbeing for anyone and everyone, but really focus on people who do have careers working on the frontline, especially first responders. They almost need it at a completely different level,” said Melissa Nytko, MSW, LCSW, who is a Certified First Responder Counselor and owns Calm Connections Therapy, LLC, in the Greater Chicago area.
While social workers operate under different conditions, Nytko includes them when she talks about first responders because they often work in child welfare and with crisis hotlines to address people’s problems. She said the same goes for educators.
“Even though their work looks different than a police officer or a paramedic, firefighter and so forth, they are still really on the frontlines as well,” she said. “They’re in classrooms, especially post-COVID. They’re experiencing disinterest. They’re experiencing high parental engagement and high parental disengagement as well as a lot of community negativity. They have a hard job, too.”
Resources and organizations are available to help first responders and those close to them recognize and manage their emotional wellbeing and address their mental health care.
How to Support First Responders and Their Mental Health
The toll of a pandemic on top of other crisis situations can affect the mental health of first responders and health care workers especially, but the pressures of the job don’t go away when a pandemic subsides. First responders’ emotional wellbeing is critical for their communities as well as their circle of loved ones, friends and colleagues.
Mental Health Action Plan for First Responders
Learn how to say no or not right now. Understand that it is OK to take time off.
Schedule regular daily activity.
Walking and other kinds of consistent physical activity provide a break from job stress.
Limit social media.
Negative coverage and discussions are not helpful to people prone to depression, anxiety or PTSD
Be mindful about nutrition.
Drink water and be intentional about what you are putting in your body.
Do something you enjoy.
Give yourself something you look forward to outside of the regular work routine.
Prevention can be important for workers on the front lines of crisis situations. Nytko highlighted practices to safeguard first responders:
Trauma-Informed Coping Strategies for First Responders
Talk to someone.
Find that person you trust and tell them how you’re feeling. Even if they don’t have answers, their attention will be helpful.
Find a distraction.
Listen to music that relaxes you, work on crossword puzzles, paint a portrait or knit a scarf.
Start with short breathing exercises to prepare for a work shift and then end the day with the same to decompress.
Mindfulness helps to put some distance between work and everything else, Nytko said. “That clears away all the things that happened in the past and things they’re worried about in the future.”
How Employers Can Support First Responders
Employers can make a positive impact when they acknowledge that first responders work in situations where their health and emotions are put to the test.
Because tensions typically run high during emergencies, people can get distraught, angry or even combative as first responders arrive to address the situation. Police, firefighters or paramedics are dealing with others’ heightened emotions while doing their jobs responding to a train derailment, car accident, building fire or medical emergency at someone’s home.
“They’re dealing with very unhappy people,” Nytko said. “They’re dealing with social media and society where there’s still a lot of negative messaging that comes from being the first people to head off whatever is going on. They have thankless jobs.”
By prioritizing and normalizing mental health care, employers can let their first responders know that they understand the challenges of the job. “Create a culture and climate that supports mental health awareness, that empathizes and understands what it feels like to have post-traumatic stress,” Nytko said.
She provided specific considerations for employers:
How to Build a Work Culture That Supports Mental Health
Hold debriefing sessions after traumatic events.
This allows first responders to talk about what happened and share their experiences.
Start peer-to-peer support programs.
Train first responders to support co-workers during a mental health crisis and be available to assist them in getting professional help.
Have a flexible return-to-work policy.
When a first responder has taken time off for mental health treatment, be supportive of their needs as they transition back to the job.
Because people are different and may want to address their emotional wellbeing in different ways, employee surveys can be helpful in determining what types of support to offer. She suggested employers seek organizations or contractors that can do in-house training in the areas of compassion fatigue, secondary trauma, burnout prevention and PTSD. Like surveys, candid and open discussions can create a work environment that embraces mental health care, whereas avoiding the subject can make it taboo, Nytko said.
How Family and Friends Can Support First Responders’ Mental Health
Loved ones can help first responders deal with PTSD and look after their emotional wellbeing by being proactive.
They can initiate conversations about mental health to discourage stigma around the subject. “I really truly believe it comes from somebody bringing it up, because otherwise it becomes the elephant in the room where people just don’t talk about it and they just sort of pacify everybody,” Nytko said.
She suggested techniques to support first responders:
Reflect back what you observe.
If the first responder is acting erratically, not sleeping or not eating, gently bring this up. Similarly, if they are responding well to therapy, let them know that.
Listen to them.
Provide an opportunity for the first responder to talk about what happened at work and share their feelings. Even if you don’t have an answer to their problems, just listen.
If you are hearing your first responder describe traumatic events and aren’t trained to deal with that, you need to find what works for your own self-care to prevent vicarious trauma.
Assist infinding professional help.
Many programs, whether one-on-one counseling or group support, are available with information about compassion fatigue, secondary trauma and burnout prevention. Have information ready.
Many professional clinicians and groups are ready to support the mental health of first responders, Nytko said.
“I encourage organizations and leaders of organizations to be creative and look for resources. The internet is just a finger type away to find people that are willing to come out and do that.”
40 Resources to Help Support First Responders’ Mental Health and Emotional Wellbeing
From hotlines to peer support, here are some of the places where first responders and their families can get assistance. Use the links below to navigate to different sections of this article.
Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance: organization that offers behavioral health workshops to fire departments, EMS and dispatch organizations, focusing on behavioral health awareness with a strong emphasis on suicide prevention.
First Responder Support Network: collaboration of emergency service peers and family members, mental health clinicians, and chaplains who volunteer to offer intensive retreats and ongoing support.