Protecting the mental health of first responders

Healthcare, mental health care, policing, and public safety career paths attract service-oriented candidates who are motivated to help their communities, give back, and serve and/or protect their communities. These professionals respond to emergencies, protect property, enforce the law, administer life-saving interventions, and provide emotional, psychological, social, physical support, and many other important services in our communities.

The working conditions for health care, mental health care, police, and public safety professionals are unique; Chronic and cumulative exposure to their working conditions puts them at risk of many negative consequences, including post-traumatic stress, burnout, and empathy fatigue. They bear chronic exposure to:

  • demanding, stressful and emotional situations,
  • Watching human violence, suffering and death,
  • Difficult shift work, including quantity, duration, intensity, unpredictability of scheduled work hours, and high patient/consumer loads,
  • risk of serious exposure (eg, infectious disease, exposure to toxins),
  • Risk of work-related injuries (such as strains, sprains, strains, broken bones, chronic pain, heart disease, and psychological injury) from patient handling, heavy equipment, operational accidents, or other physically demanding and hazardous situations.

Many health care, mental health care, police and public safety professionals face problems because they put the well-being of others before their own and suffer stigma around seeking help for mental health concerns. While appreciating self-reliance and commitment to their work is commendable, it can also be detrimental if it prevents them from getting the support they need to maintain their well-being.

In 2022, the University of Nevada at Reno awards nearly 5,000 degrees, with the most popular majors including Community Health Sciences, Nursing, Psychology, Social Work, Public Health, and Criminal Justice. Students with these degrees often accept positions in health care, mental health care, policing, and public safety, and are ideally placed to build resilience before they enter their career. Sustainable wellness requires a deliberate investment in self and students can be proactive by investing in strategies to increase their future job satisfaction, health, and longevity:

1. Learn to recognize stress, and 2. Learn how to help yourself when stressed.

Stress management is most beneficial when a person is able to correctly identify and label their emotions and has the coping skills available to regulate them. Many people have problems managing stress because 1) they don’t realize that the symptoms they are experiencing are signs of stress and 2) they use the same coping skill(s) regardless of the problem, its context, or the effectiveness of the skills.

Misinterpreting signs of stress and relying on narrow or maladaptive coping skills can exacerbate existing symptoms, while recognizing stress reactions and having the many adaptive coping skills available will allow a person to respond flexibly to their circumstances and be effective across situations. Thus, one way to be proactive and build resilience is to learn how the body reacts to stress and experiment with different coping skills depending on the stress level and circumstances to see what strategies work for you. Readers may benefit from information on stress and coping-related topics:

3. Learn how and where to get professional support in times of extreme stress.

Successful stress management may include seeking professional help and obtaining a third-party perspective. It is important to know when you can manage stress on your own and when you can benefit from additional support. Depending on symptoms, needs, and preferences, it may be helpful to incorporate professionals from mental health, physical health, financial support, spirituality and religion, or other sources to experience relief. Thus, another way to be proactive and build resilience is to identify and establish relationships with professional support so that you are comfortable with them, and they will be available to you during times of stress in the future. Readers can locate resources through:

  • recommendations from trusted family members, friends, and peers,
  • databases of health insurance providers,
  • Online directories with verified content (for example,
  • National, state, and county agency websites
  • First Responders and Front Line Locations:

4. Develop healthy habits to improve routine and job performance.

Learning what behaviors contribute to alertness, motivation, and good health and what behaviors contribute to burnout, fatigue, and burnout is key to maintaining wellness. In addition, recognizing the effects of working conditions (eg, overtime, exposure to trauma, organizational pressure) on daily routine and health, is the first step towards combating these effects. One way to be proactive and build resilience is to develop healthy habits to improve basic functions, such as sleep, nutrition, and physical activity routines. Education curricula for healthcare, mental health care, policing, and public safety often include courses; Students may benefit from using these opportunities to ask questions about healthy habits and learn how employees adapt to their working conditions and maintain their own well-being.

5. Develop interests, hobbies, and relationships unrelated to the job.

Having a “typical” schedule and sticking strictly to future events can be challenging among healthcare professionals, mental health care, police and public safety. It is common for these professionals to spend increasingly more time with co-workers and in activities related to their jobs, while at the same time narrowing their interests and social circles. While on the one hand this strengthens work-related skills and connections, on the other hand, it prolongs the time spent in a work-oriented mindset and can contribute to burnout. Thus, another way to be proactive and build resilience is to maintain some support systems and restorative activities that allow for rest and recovery from work and keep one’s worldview broad and balanced. Find activities that combine social connection with physical activity, such as group fitness classes, that can increase impact and efficiency.

Remember that the time to plan is before you need it. Proactive planning and preparation goes a long way toward intentionally building resilience among health care and mental health care workers, police, and public safety professionals.

About the author

Dr.. Gina Casas (PhD in Clinical Psychology, 21) Licensed clinical psychologist and counselor. She owns and operates a private practice in Nevada that specializes in behavioral health therapy for first responders and their families and a consulting firm that provides operational support and organizational advice to law enforcement agencies concerned with the health of officers.

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