Many mental health conditions, including depression, substance use disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and even suicidal ideation, are more common among first responders. First responders undergo intensive training to prepare for their physically demanding and potentially dangerous jobs — but are they prepared mentally and emotionally? Employers have an opportunity, and an obligation, to take a proactive approach to protecting the mental health of their teams working on the front lines.
Constant exposure to traumatic events and life-threatening situations — and the stress of working long hours away from family members and under high-stakes conditions — can easily build up and take an enormous toll on mental health.
The current situation around COVID-19 has only compounded the stressors first responders cope with daily. Employers must address these issues head-on — and provide their teams with robust mental health support.
The role of a first responder is to help others. Strength, bravery, and grit are highly valued — and employees often take on a “whatever it takes” mentality. This perpetuates stigma around mental health conditions — based on the misconception that they’re a sign of weakness. Conversations about mental health are often swept under the rug or never stated. But the high rates of depression, PTSD, substance use disorder, and suicide make it clear that first responder mental health needs to be addressed early and often.
Speaking up about mental health creates pathways to recovery
If talking about mental health could become embedded in first responder work culture, the stigma around mental health conditions could be lifted. More than 7 in 10 first responders say they’d be more likely to seek professional counseling if a leader in their organization spoke openly about their own experience.4 And peers have an even greater positive influence — 8 in 10 say that if a close colleague spoke up, they would be encouraged to seek help for themselves.5
Most first responders believe that treatment works for conditions like PTSD, depression, and substance use disorders — and they’re right. But many also believe that people who seek help for these conditions will face negative repercussions at work. Unfortunately, it’s perceptions like these that make many first responders reluctant to take advantage of the mental health services available to them.
Depression, PTSD, substance use disorders, and other mental health conditions can be prevented or successfully treated when first responders get the right support. Employers can play an important role in making that happen.
Promote the practice of self-care
Working as a first responder comes with intense physical and mental demands — taking time to recover and replenish is essential. As an employer, it’s important to encourage, model, and help facilitate healthy behaviors, such as:
Recognize the role of resilience
Resilience is the ability to cope with adversity and trauma. But the job of a first responder is to jump in and support others who are experiencing trauma. First responders need specific —
and continuous — training and support to cope with the stress they experience on the job. Investing in resilience training can help your team with several vital skills:
There are many available resources specifically designed to help first responders practice self-care and build resilience. For example, myStrength. external link is a digital self-care app that now offers 17 interactive tools designed to reduce stigma, address burnout, build skills, and open lines of communication.6
Practicing mindfulness is a skill that can help first responders manage stress in the moment and become more resilient in the future. In one study, first responders who participated in online mindfulness training for just 5 to 10 minutes a day for 30 days experienced less stress, greater resilience, and increased engagement at work.7
First responder mental health is a complex and evolving subject — and additional stressors have been brought on by COVID-19.
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but you can help guide your organization in a positive direction:
We depend on first responders to keep ourselves, our families, and our communities safe. That’s a tremendous responsibility. It’s not easy to run into the proverbial burning building — day after day — while everyone else runs out of it. Collectively, we need to show up for first responders the way they show up for us, and employers can play a vital role in making that happen. Asking for help should be celebrated as a sign of strength, not weakness. Employees should have access to the tools they need to thrive in mind, body, and spirit. And there should be an ongoing dialogue about mental health that fosters a culture of awareness, acceptance, and support.
Dr. Holly Kennedy-Hansen works as an integrated care psychologist for Kaiser Permanente in Aurora, Colorado. She received her doctoral degree in clinical psychology in 2009 from the Arizona School of Professional Psychology and completed her residency and postdoctoral work at Princeton House Behavioral Health. Prior to her work with Kaiser Permanente, she contracted with the United States Air Force Academy and Buckley Air Force Base treating active duty soldiers, cadets, and veterans. While working on base, Dr. Kennedy-Hansen completed special duty evaluations and treated patients assigned to military police, fire, and medical units. She has also gone on to complete specialized training in working with perinatal mood, trauma, and substance use disorders. Dr. Kennedy-Hansen remains passionate in working with first responders and helping to bring increased awareness and training to other professionals regarding their treatment needs.
Mental health at work — why stigma is a workforce health issue >
Tap into the power of mindfulness to enhance workforce well-being >
Services covered under your health plan are provided and/or arranged by Kaiser Permanente health plans: Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, Inc., in Northern and Southern California and Hawaii • Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of Colorado • Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of Georgia, Inc., Nine Piedmont Center, 3495 Piedmont Road NE, Atlanta, GA 30305, 404-364-7000 • Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of the Mid-Atlantic States, Inc., in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., 2101 E. Jefferson St., Rockville, MD 20852 • Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of the Northwest, 500 NE Multnomah St., Suite 100, Portland, OR 97232 • Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of Washington or Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of Washington Options, Inc., 320 Westlake Ave. N, Suite 100, Seattle, WA 98109 • Self-insured plans are administered by Kaiser Permanente Insurance Company, One Kaiser Plaza, Oakland, CA 94612
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