Protecting the mental health of first responders
Health care, mental health, and police and public safety career paths attract service-oriented candidates who are motivated to help, donate, serve and/or protect their communities. These professionals respond to emergency situations, protect property, enforce the law, administer life-saving interventions, provide emotional, psychological, social and physical support and many other important services in our communities.
The working conditions of health care, mental health, and police and public safety professionals are unique; Chronic and cumulative exposure to their working conditions puts them at risk for developing several negative consequences, including post-traumatic stress, burnout and compassion fatigue among others. They endure chronic exposure to:
demanding, stressful and emotional situations, witnessing human violence, suffering and death, challenging shift work, including the amount, duration, intensity and unpredictability of scheduled work hours and high patient/consumer workload, risk of hazardous exposure (eg, infectious diseases, exposure to toxins), risk for work-related injuries (eg, overuse, sprains and strains, broken bones, chronic pain, heart disease, psychological injuries) from patient handling, heavy equipment, operational accidents or other physical and dangerous situations.
Many health care, mental health, and police and public safety professionals encounter problems because they put the well-being of others before themselves and experience stigma associated with seeking help for mental health concerns. While appreciating their self-reliance and dedication to their work is commendable, it can also be harmful if it prevents them from getting the support they need to maintain their well-being.
In 2022, the University of Nevada, Reno awarded approximately 5,000 degrees, with the most popular majors including Community Health Sciences, Nursing, Psychology, Social Work, Public Health, and Criminal Justice. Students earning these degrees often accept positions in healthcare, mental health, and policing and public safety, and are perfectly placed to build resilience before entering their careers. Sustained well-being requires an intentional investment in self, and students can be proactive by investing in strategies to increase their future work-related satisfaction, health and longevity:
1. Learn to recognize stress and 2. Know how to help yourself when you are stressed.
Stress management is most helpful when a person can correctly identify and label their emotions and has adaptive coping skills available to regulate them. Many people have trouble 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 skills/skills regardless of the problem, their 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 some adaptive coping skills in place will allow a person to respond flexibly to circumstances. them and be effective in situations. So one way to be proactive and build resilience is to learn how the body reacts to stress and try different coping skills depending on the stress level and circumstances to learn which strategies are effective for you. Readers may benefit from information on stress and related coping topics:
3. Learn how and where to get professional support during times of high stress.
Successful stress management may involve seeking professional help and getting a third-party perspective. It’s important to understand 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 involve professionals from mental health, physical health, financial support, spirituality and religion, or other resources to experience relief. Thus, another way to be proactive and build resilience is to identify and build relationships with professional supports so that you are comfortable with them and they are available to you during future periods of stress. Readers can identify sources by:
Recommendations from trusted family members, friends, and peers Health insurance provider databases Online directories with verified content (eg, PsychologyToday.com) National, state, and county agency websites Specific websites of first and frontline responders: 4. Develop healthy habits to optimize routine and functioning.
Learning which behaviors contribute to alertness, motivation, and good health and which behaviors contribute to fatigue, overwhelm, and burnout is essential to maintaining well-being. Furthermore, recognizing the effects of working conditions (eg, overtime, trauma exposure, and organizational stress) on daily routines and health is the first step toward combating these effects. One way to be proactive and build resilience is to develop healthy habits to optimize basic functions, such as routines for sleep, eating and physical activity. Educational curricula in the health care, mental health care, and police and public safety fields often include internships; students can benefit from using these opportunities to ask questions about healthy habits and learn how employees adapt their routines to their working conditions and maintain their well-being.
5. Develop non-career interests, hobbies and relationships.
Having a “typical” schedule and firmly committing to upcoming events can be difficult among health care, mental health, and police and public safety professionals. It is common for these professionals to spend more and more time with colleagues and in activities related to their work, while simultaneously narrowing their interests and social circles. While on the one hand, this strengthens work-related skills and connections, on the other hand, it prolongs 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 well balanced. Seeking out activities that combine social connection and physical activity, such as group fitness classes, can maximize effect and efficiency.
Remember, the time for a plan is before you need it. Proactive planning and preparation go a long way toward intentionally building resilience among healthcare, mental health, and police and public safety professionals.
About the Author
Dr. Jena Casas (Clinical Psychology Ph.D., ’21) is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Counselor. She owns and operates a private practice in Nevada that specializes in the behavioral health treatment of first responders and their families and a consulting firm that provides operational support and organizational consulting to law enforcement agencies interested in officer well-being. .