First responders can struggle with mental health and wellness as they try to care for others | Opinion – PennLive


By Dr. Anna Fitch Courie
Recently, thousands of first responders from throughout Pennsylvania and beyond were in Harrisburg for the Lancaster County Firemen’s Association Annual FIRE EXPO at the Farm Show Complex. Surely, many of the attendees have been involved in incidents that have long-term mental health impacts.
Not many people can fully understand or empathize with the things first responders encounter during an emergency or even on a daily basis. Public safety service comes with great personal sacrifice, and many first responders silently carry the burden. Trauma can be difficult to discuss with others. First responders are dedicated to protecting others and too often put themselves at the bottom of the priority list.
People don’t call 9-1-1 because they’re having a good day. And those experiences, those images that stay rooted in the mind, take a toll on the people who respond to those calls. Compared to the general population, first responders experience higher rates of depression, post-traumatic stress, burnout, anxiety and other mental health issues. And in law enforcement, one study found a more than 20-year difference in life expectancy compared to the average American male.
It’s estimated that 30% of all first responders experience mental health issues including post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety. And that research was conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic and the extra demands it added to the already challenging jobs done by firefighters, EMS, law enforcement, corrections, dispatch, emergency medical personnel and other public safety officials including emergency managers. Stress can be a protective factor in the face of life-threatening events, but too many first responders go on to internalize and ignore traumatic experiences, creating a chronic stress injury.
These statistics highlight why public safety agencies are focusing more on first responder health and wellness. To complement their efforts, AT&T established the FirstNet® Health & Wellness Coalition to collaborate and coordinate across all of public safety to address the health and wellness needs of emergency responders nationwide.
FirstNet, Built with AT&T, is public safety’s only nationwide network created with and for first responders. As public safety’s communications partner, we work closely with the women and men on the front lines and recognize the need for a diverse array of services, tools and resources. The Health & Wellness Coalition brings together more than two dozen member organizations that represent more than 5.1 million first responders, and its priorities were developed from the input of over 350 first responders. These priorities include addressing post-traumatic stress, depression and self-harm, stress management, physical fitness, resiliency, and family member and leadership engagement.
The Coalition doesn’t just talk about these issues; the coalition takes active engagement to address the problems facing public safety.
Recently, FirstNet enlisted some furry friends for help. Through the FirstNet Response Operations Group (ROG), we launched the “ROG the Dog” animal-assisted therapy initiative in conjunction with Global Medical Response (GMR) in 2021. There are over 30 therapy animals stationed across the country, specifically trained to support the health and well-being of first responders.
Studies have shown that interacting with animals can improve coping and recovery, enhance morale, decrease stress, and reduce the effects of PTSD and emotional distress.4
In addition, many resources exist that can improve coping and recovery, enhance morale, decrease stress and reduce emotional distress. FirstNet has collaborated with some of the best programs to bring evidenced based solutions to the boots on the ground responders supporting their communities every day.
For chiefs, administrators and agency heads, it is never too late to institute departmental initiatives and trainings that support the health and wellness of first responders with organizations such as Boulder Crest Foundation for Posttraumatic Growth, All Clear Foundation, O2X Human Performance and First H.E.L.P. for suicide prevention. Additionally, numerous safety and wellness apps (that have been FirstNet verified) like Lighthouse Health & Wellness, ResponderRel8, BJA VALOR Officer Safety, Cordico, The Better App: Mental Health and others provide easy and efficient access to information and support services so that responders have the tools they need wherever they live work or play.
Raising awareness and highlighting the challenges are critical steps towards changing the stigma around first responder mental health. Seeking help and creating an open environment that encourages conversation about these topics can increase resiliency, help build better working environments, safer departments and healthier individuals. Healthy first responders can respond better to their communities helping to ensure the community’s safety.
We hope first responders across Pennsylvania will take advantage of the tools and resources available to keep themselves mentally healthy. There is no better way to say thank you to all the women and men who put the lives of others before their own than to make first responder health and wellness a top priority.
Dr. Anna Fitch Courie, DNP, RN is Director of Responder Wellness for the FirstNet Program at AT&T.
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