The ongoing pandemic is driving support to increase access to mental health resources for first responders.
Several studies have shown the impact the pandemic has had on rates of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse in the U.S. But experts say those health concerns are even higher for people who have worked on the front lines of COVID-19 response during the last two years.
In addition to the pandemic, they dealt with limited personal protective equipment at the onset of the pandemic, there is high job burnout, in addition to the social unrest and the scores of natural disasters that have taken place during this time, said Dr. Anna Courie, DNP, RN, PHNA-BC, Director of Responder Wellness with the FirstNet Program at AT&T.
“This is, unfortunately, the perfect scenario for stressors to bubble out of control,” she said.
FirstNet is a public safety wireless communication network created after the 9/11 attacks built specifically for first responders and the public safety community. Since October 2020, AT&T has been building a Health and Wellness Program to integrate with the FirstNet network that provides health and wellness resources for first responders. This includes an animal-assisted therapy program (ROG the Dog) and a selection of mobile wellness applications and programs that link first responders to mental health resources nationwide. Another application connects responders with others who have lived traumatic experiences on the job and live with post-traumatic stress, Courie said.
The program also emphasizes reaching out to first responders in departments outside of urban areas, where mental health resources are more limited, she said.
First responders, which includes firefighters, police officers, and emergency medical service (EMS), are exposed to more trauma due to the nature of the work, according to studies. They are the first to the scene at an emergency and typically have little time to decompress between calls.
About 30% of first responders develop behavioral health conditions including but not limited to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder compared to about 20% of the general population, according to a 2018 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Close to 70% of EMS workers do not have time to recover between traumatic events. PTSD, depression, and access to mental health care were the top three concerns facing public safety professionals, according to the study.
Back-to-back destructive hurricane seasons in the Gulf Coast region amid the pandemic added to stressors Charles Wise, the Deputy Chief of Operations, American Medical Response South Mississippi, and his employees regularly experienced at work.
A year ago, Wise and his team, had to balance staying safe and responding to 911 emergency calls as COVID-19 cases swept through Mississippi early in the pandemic. They’d respond to calls wearing masks, goggles, and gowns to protect themselves.
He was out of work for two months early in 2020 when he got sick with COVID-19. When he returned, most of the calls were COVID-19 related and there were fewer emergency calls for other health concerns because people were afraid of going to the hospital.
“A lot of stress was put on the employees working long hours, with people that were leaving that weren’t too sure about wanting to be EMS,” Wise said. “Things changed a lot. There was a lot of stress for employees that did stay around long term.”
At the same time, first responders from the entire Gulf Coast region had to prepare to respond during the most active hurricane season on record last year.
One resource he said has been helpful for his staff has been having access to Tucker, a 3-year-old Goldendoodle therapy dog with FirstNet’s animal-assisted therapy program. Wise is a dog handler with the program and said that he’s seen a big difference in how his staff feels having Tucker around.
“Employees come in in the morning looking for him (Tucker) and in the afternoon after having a rough day,” he said.
Finding culturally competent counselors who understand and can relate to the trauma a first responder can experience on the job is also a priority, experts say.
Rendy Richard, a retired police officer with the Baton Rouge Police Department, developed their officer wellness and peer support unit in response to events that shook the city in 2016, including the high-profile police shooting of Alton Sterling, an African American man in July of that year, which sparked national protests. In the wake of Sterling’s death, a Missouri gunman ambushed and killed three Baton Rouge officers, wounding three others, according to a report from The Daily Advertiser.
A month later, historic flooding devastated communities across south Louisiana.
The wellness unit also provides spousal and family support. Richard said it was important to vet counselors and resources who could understand how first responders are affected by events they see on the job.
“We see some of the worst things that anyone can imagine, and we pack them down. When you’re unloading some of this stuff, and it’s multiple traumatic incidents that’s huge. We’ve had mental health specialists say, “I can’t deal with this or you shouldn’t feel that way” because they don’t have knowledge of the culture,” she said.
Richard brought in resources such as the national organization, Trauma Behind the Badge to provide peer-to-peer support in the department. The wellness unit partnered with organizations like FirstNet and Blue H.E.L.P to provide mental health resources and support to address suicide prevention in public safety. They organized family events.
Richard retired earlier this year but is the vice president of the National Police Wives Association and continues to participate in events supporting the mental health of families of first responders.
The pandemic changed some of these efforts when people were not easily able to gather in public. Officers had to worry about getting sick on the job and bringing COVID-19 home to their families, Richard said.
“We are used to taking care of the wounded, taking care of whatever needs to be done…until the next call,” she said. “With the pandemic, we could not as officers and first responders control it, we could not stop it. Our training was not for this. But yet we’re on the front lines.”
Maria Clark is a general assignment reporter with The American South. Story ideas, tips, questions? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @MariaPClark1. Sign up for The American South newsletter. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
This article originally appeared on The American South: First responders face growing mental health toll amid ongoing pandemic