Counseling Today, Features

Putting first responders’ mental health on the front lines

By Lindsey Phillips July 6, 2020

A firefighter/emergency medical technician (EMT) in Maine answers an emergency call. He grabs his gear and performs a job he knows well. The next day, he discovers that the person he helped has tested positive for COVID-19. He immediately starts worrying not just about himself but about his wife and young child, who have respiratory issues.

Amy Davenport Dakin, a licensed clinical professional counselor in Maine and a licensed clinical mental health counselor in New Hampshire, has been working with this firefighter/EMT for several years now. Before this incident, he had struggled with anxiety, depression, suicidality and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but with Dakin’s help, had successfully worked through many of these issues. This latest experience of being exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19 adds another layer of stress and anxiety that could negate his previous progress, Dakin says.

As the name implies, first responders such as EMTs, police officers, firefighters, paramedics, dispatchers and others are trained professionals who are the first to respond in emergency situations. Unless people happen to be facing an emergency themselves, this service often gets taken for granted, and little thought is generally paid to the accumulating toll on first responders’ mental health.

That calls for a reality check. “Our worst day is first responders’ every day,” points out Drew Prochniak, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) in private practice in Portland, Oregon. “Their days are filled with accidents, pain, grief, loss and trauma.”

According to a 2018 supplemental research bulletin from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Disaster Technical Assistance Center, depression and PTSD affect approximately 30% of first responders. In addition, 37% of fire and emergency medical services professionals have contemplated suicide, which is nearly 10 times the rate of American adults in general. In fact, in the United States, more firefighters die from suicide than from fires, Dakin notes.

It is easy to surmise that this population could benefit from therapeutic interventions, yet its members are often the last to ask for help. By getting to know the first responder community and tailoring approaches to match this population, counselors can break down some of the barriers that prevent these heroes from prioritizing their mental health.

 

Getting to know the culture

Dakin, a member of the American Counseling Association, acknowledges that it can be difficult for counselors who do not have previous experience with first responders to get a foot in the door with the community. Someone initially referred a firefighter to Dakin for counseling services, and the experience piqued her interest in working more with first responders. But first she had to earn their trust.

For approximately seven years, she attended labor union meetings, conducted trainings and presentations, rode along with first responders on calls, and hung out at their stations. This exposure allowed her to build relationships and trust within the first responder community and helped her determine that it was a population with which she wanted to work full time. Today she owns New Perceptions Inc. in Kingston, New Hampshire, a private practice that focuses on trauma and mental help treatment for first responders.

Prochniak, a former search and rescue professional and author of the book Addiction & Recovery for First Responders, agrees that establishing a relationship with a first responder department or agency is an important step toward overcoming community members’ belief that clinicians don’t understand their culture. “There’s this mystique about clinicians that we only want to talk about emotions and get in people’s heads,” Prochniak says. Building relationships with first responders outside of counseling sessions will show them that therapists are just regular people too, he says.

Prochniak, who specializes in the education, training and treatment of first responders, says there is a personality type that goes along with being a clinician who works with this population. Counselors must be able to handle hearing about grotesque experiences and communicate respect for the work that first responders do, he explains. With clients in law enforcement, this often means that counselors must be comfortable with clients having guns in session, he adds.

Prochniak cautions counselors against asking first responders about the worst thing they have seen, what type of gun they carry or whether they have ever shot someone. Instead, counselors should be curious about them as people: How long have they done this work? What led them to get into this line of work? How does their work affect their family? What kind of social network do they have? Do they hang out only with people from the first responder community? What else do they do outside of work?

Counselors will also need to be able to tolerate a dark, almost morbid, sense of humor because first responders often use that as a coping mechanism. “One of the ways we cope with trauma is with humor. And it can be really upsetting for people who don’t experience [what first responders do],” notes Carrie Whittaker, an LPC and LMHC in New York and Connecticut.

Prochniak points out that counselors must also be savvy about managing dual relationships. In addition to being a clinician in private practice, he is also a trainer and educator. At the start of every new client relationship with a first responder, he prepares them for the possibility of also bumping into him at trainings, briefings, meetings or ride-alongs. He makes it clear to these clients that he will not initiate acknowledgment of them in such circumstances out of respect for their confidentiality. “One wrong slip in acknowledging that you see someone [in counseling] or that you know someone else could cost you a client,” he explains.

In addition, counselors have to be flexible when working with first responders because they have irregular schedules, Dakin says. This might mean needing to conduct telehealth sessions or meeting with these clients outside of the typical 9-to-5 workday. There will also be last-minute cancellations, she points out. Dakin typically has a 24-hour cancellation fee, but she waives it for first responders who are stuck at work or otherwise have a good reason for not making their appointments.

In many ways, counselors may need to be on call themselves when working with first responders, Dakin says. When there is an emergency such as a line-of-duty death or an explosion, Dakin has to be prepared to drop everything, including her current caseload for that day, to respond. And if a client who is a first responder has a bad call on a Sunday, then she is also working that Sunday. Although it has happened infrequently, she has even had the labor union or clients call her as late as 10 p.m. because of an emergency.

Prochniak and Dakin both emphasize the importance of being humble when working with this population. “Although you are the professional in mental health, you’re not the professional in their field,” Prochniak explains. “Just because you know trauma or just because you know stress doesn’t mean you know this population. It shows up very differently … because this is a unique culture. So, get to know the culture. Spend time with them.”

No shame in needing help

The biggest barrier to first responders seeking help is the attached stigma — a false belief that if they need counseling, it means they are weak or unfit to do the job, Dakin says.

People often assume that because first responders signed up for the job, it means they are prepared to handle the associated trauma. But that’s not how the brain works, Dakin stresses. “The brain can only handle so much exposure to traumatic images before it’s on overload,” she says.

Joel Smith, an LPC in private practice in Denver, concurs that as a society, we do relatively little to acknowledge vicarious trauma among first responders. Although these professionals do generally possess an enhanced skill set to cope with trauma, they are still vulnerable to burnout, he says. Smith tries to normalize this reality for clients who are first responders by asking, “Has your stress been building up for a while? Is it exploding? How are you handling your stress?”

Whittaker, an ACA member who has a private practice in Manhattan and Westchester, New York, puts this idea of “being tough enough to handle it” into context for her first responder clients. She explains that being tough doesn’t mean that they never get upset or that nothing bothers them. It means processing those feelings to help themselves do their job better.

“It’s important for counselors to remind them that being tough enough to handle it doesn’t have to mean being hardened to it. It doesn’t mean that you don’t break down and cry sometimes,” she says.

First responders also have a tendency to not want to burden others with what they have experienced. Some of Dakin’s clients have said to her, “It’s a really bad call, and I don’t know if I want to put those thoughts in your head.”

Clinicians have to reassure these clients that counseling is a safe space for them to talk about their issues and experiences. When hearing difficult stories, Dakin says, counselors should refrain from sounding alarmed and making statements such as, “I can’t believe that happened! That must have been horrible.”

“While [that statement] is validating and has the best of intentions, that’s not what these people want to hear,” Dakin says. “They basically want to talk. They want to tell their story.” Counselors can validate that the client’s experience was tough without being too reactionary, she says, and that largely involves listening carefully.

Counselors should also remain aware of their facial expressions, Whittaker adds. If counselors look shocked or terrified, these clients will notice and be more likely to shut down.   

Smith, a therapist at Jefferson Center (a community-focused mental health care and substance use services provider in Colorado) and an associate at Look Inside Counseling, finds motivational interviewing an effective technique when first responders are hesitant to accept help from others. For example, Smith says, counselors can ask these clients, “How can you receive help yourself?” or “How can you model receiving help?” The technique allows first responders to develop some healthy discomfort with the fact that they are simultaneously heroes who help others and people who need help with their own problems, Smith explains.

“One of the best ways they can help themselves is to feel like they have a role in helping someone else,” Smith continues. That’s one of the reasons he encourages first responders who have benefited from counseling to tell colleagues about how it has helped them.

These clients could share an effective coping skill they learned in counseling with the rest of their team, or they could model self-care at work. “If you see someone struggle, that’s one thing. But if you see them struggle and overcome it, it builds the idea that it’s possible [for you too],” Smith notes.

Tailoring counseling to fit first responders

Prochniak, the mental health professional for American Medical Response in the Portland/Vancouver metro areas, finds that mindfulness, focused breathing and meditation techniques all work well to reduce first responders’ anxiety and stress levels and build their stress resilience. Sometimes, however, these clients can be hesitant to try such techniques, either because they perceive some stigma attached to the techniques or because of the way that counselors present them.

One approach that can help break through this hesitation is finding concrete ways of translating clinical speech into first responders’ everyday language, Prochniak says. For example, if he’s working with a paramedic, he will discuss how mindfulness techniques strengthen the parasympathetic nervous system. If he’s working with a client in law enforcement, he will reference combat breathing, which is how these professionals already describe the use of deep breaths to calm down or reduce stress.

Dakin frequently convinces first responders to give mindfulness and yoga a try by explaining the science behind the exercises. She often compares how the brain processes trauma with what happens with diabetes: Just as elevated levels of glucose in the body worsen when the pancreas does not work correctly, experiencing too much trauma causes an overload of chemicals to be dumped into the brain. Then the brain responds by releasing cortisol. Breathing and mindfulness exercises help reduce that response and regulate chemical levels.

Similarly, the traditional way of presenting and explaining yoga doesn’t match with the culture of first responders, Dakin notes. When she first encourages these clients to try yoga, the response is typically along the lines of, “I’m not going into a studio wearing spandex and meditating.”

To counter this negative perception, Dakin recommends a yoga program designed specifically for first responders (yogaforfirstresponders.org). The program gears its language to fit the culture, she says. For example, it renames child’s pose as a warrior’s pose, which is a more strength-based term. Dakin now knows some first responders who practice yoga on the job to regulate their breathing and avoid going into fight-or-flight mode as quickly.

Smith has discovered that some of his clients find it helpful to conceptualize grounding techniques as a workout. They have a “grounding buddy,” and together they work on their awareness, he says.

Dakin also uses familiar language to help first responders get more comfortable with mindfulness. For example, rather than having firefighters use a numerical scale to describe how upset they are, she uses the fire danger warning scale, which estimates the existing and expected fire risk for an area. The scale is color-coded, moving from red (extreme danger) to green (low danger).

If a client says they are in the red, then Dakin has them breathe deeply while imagining their arrow moving into a safer level. She explains how each breath is calming their nervous system. This skill has become a special language that she shares with her clients. A client may start a session by saying, “I was in the red a couple of times this week, but I breathed and at least got myself into the yellow.”

Dakin also explains to clients that mindfulness doesn’t have to be limited to sitting still and taking deep breaths. It can take the form of something they normally enjoy doing, such as fishing, taking a walk, kayaking or hiking, as long as they are doing it mindfully.

Managing anxiety

First responders often get anxious anticipating what their day might hold. “Schedule and routine are the enemy of anxiety,” says Smith, who specializes in trauma, mood management, addiction, and LGBTQ-specific needs. First responders can incorporate comforting activities such as walking their dog or calling a family member at certain times throughout the day. “Having that kind of expectation in life leaves less room for anxiety to happen,” he explains.

He encourages his clients to make grounding a part of their daily routine. They can ground themselves when they wake up, when they shower or when they go to bed. They can also ground themselves on the way to work, Smith points out, taking a few minutes when they are at a red light and noticing what’s happening around them: “I’m stuck in traffic. A kid is riding a bike beside me. It’s raining. A song I like is playing on the radio.”

Smith advises clients to set phone reminders to ground themselves. Even if they can’t check their phones that minute, they will be reminded later. Then they can take two minutes before going back to work to breathe and be aware of the way their body feels, their surroundings and their emotions.

Grounding can also be a preventive measure, Smith adds. “If you walk into an emergency and you’re already grounded, then you’ll be better off on the back end of that emergency,” he says.

As clients progress with their grounding skills, Smith asks them to visualize grounding themselves during an emergency on the job. This involves visualizing the person in front of them who is having the emergency, as well as all the chaos and turmoil unfolding around them, while also being aware of their body and their role in the situation.

“It sounds counterintuitive to have them visualize chaos, but first responders are going to experience that during their day, and then they can ground themselves in the midst of this chaos,” Smith says. This is an advanced grounding skill and not appropriate for first responders who have just started therapy, he points out.

Processing the trauma

Trauma is no stranger to first responders. They see people die and watch people suffer, all while working long hours. And they often feel unable or powerless to help, Smith says.

Some first responders also wrestle with guilt over choices they made during an emergency. “When you have to make a decision in a split second, that’s something that can be really haunting. It might mean saving your life or saving someone else’s life but sacrificing something or someone else,” says Whittaker, who specializes in working with trauma.

“Trauma makes us think horrible things about ourselves and our own abilities,” Smith says. For example, a highly skilled emergency room nurse may suddenly doubt their skills if multiple people die during their shift one week. The nurse may suddenly feel out of control or useless.

Smith finds trauma-processing therapies such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy effective with the first responder population. These therapies help clients process their feelings about the trauma while learning to separate themselves from unhealthy thinking.

Because emergency situations are filled with chaos and unpredictability, it is often difficult for first responders to slow down and think about what they can realistically control, Smith says. He often has clients journal about what they can and can’t control.

“They can have control over their own beliefs about themselves and what their own purpose is. And that can be enormously helpful in a trauma environment,” Smith says. With EMDR, clients are able to look at a task that gives them anxiety, reduce that anxiety, and feel more confident to perform that task, he adds.

Behavior patterns can be telling

Dakin often detects PTSD and emotional problems by looking for behavioral shifts or irregular behavior patterns with first responders. For example, a first responder who has been working in the department for 20 years without any issues may suddenly start yelling at the fire chief and refusing to follow rules. When this happens, the labor union often asks Dakin to perform an evaluation to figure out what might be going on.

Counselors should also be aware of behavior patterns around substance use. “There’s a huge co-occurrence of substance abuse and trauma,” Smith says. “So, if you work in an environment where you’re going to see and experience trauma, then … you’re more likely to develop a substance abuse problem.”

First responders might not necessarily be battling a long-term addiction or engaging in binge drinking, Prochniak says. They might just be spending their days off work each week casually drinking because they find their home life less exciting than their work life, he observes.

Both Prochniak and Smith encourage counselors working with first responders to ask about their substance use, including amount, frequency and any changes over time. “If that problem exists, then it’s usually helpful to manage substance abuse habits before working on trauma,” Smith advises.

Prochniak also encourages clients to notice when they experience the itch to have a drink or use drugs and to think about what that itch (the substance use) is trying to scratch. Are they anxious, bored, unsettled? Together, they then figure out a plan to address the underlying issue. “Breaking it down into this smaller view of what’s behind the drinking [or substance use] can be helpful,” he notes.

Developing transition plans

All the stress and trauma of the job can spill into first responders’ personal relationships. “People who are going through trauma can be emotionally up and down, so a first responder may be angry or irritable, if not explosive, sometimes,” Smith says. “Maybe they will cry a lot or be super anxious and not be able to really be in a room with [family or friends] because they have pent-up energy.”

First responders often need help learning how to transition from work to home, where the rules may be different, Prochniak says. For example, if a firefighter works a 24-hour shift (followed by 48 hours off), their partner is in charge of the house for those 24 hours. When the firefighter returns home, they may be upset because they expect the house to be clean and organized like it is at work.

Prochniak and Smith help these clients develop transition plans to better manage the boundaries between work and home. Smith encourages his clients to perform self-checks before heading home from work. They can ask themselves, “Where am I right now? How am I feeling (angry, sad, anxious)? What do I need before I go home?” His clients often discover they need to take 30 minutes for themselves. They may go for a run, sit in the car and listen to music, read a book or grab a bite to eat before they are ready to take on the demands at home.

Prochniak recommends that first responders use the following transition strategies:

  • If they’ve had a rough day at work, text or call their partner to provide a heads-up.
  • Take 30 minutes to exercise either at a gym or on equipment they keep in their garage to process the cortisol and neurotransmitters that have accumulated over the course of their shift.
  • Change their clothes at work so that they don’t wear their uniform home. Prochniak often advises clients to look at the shoes they’re wearing. If they are wearing their duty or work boots, then they are at work. If not, then they are at home. This serves as a reminder of the role they are in and what their expectations should be.

Helping first responders support themselves

First responders operate in a close-knit community. “They protect each other, but they also don’t know what to do [to help one another],” Dakin says. She recalls a client who found his co-worker’s behavior troubling, but he wasn’t sure how to provide assistance because he didn’t want to get his friend in trouble or for his friend to get mad at him.

One of the best things counselors can do to support this population is to educate them on healthy ways to help one another. Dakin works with a program (offered by the International Association of Firefighters and the Professional Firefighters of Maine) that trains firefighters to look for warning signs that a co-worker may be struggling and to intervene before it turns into a mental health crisis.

According to Whittaker, peer support often works better than group therapy for this population. Group therapy places people who have been taught to swallow their feelings and just “deal with it” in a setting where they may fear what a therapist will push them to say and how their peers will react, she explains.

Peer support, on the other hand, “takes the therapist out of the room,” Whittaker says. “It is led by people who have been through it and people who can find that common ground. It feels less like therapy and more like people just hanging out and talking, which is a much safer experience for them.”

Dakin recently helped some firefighters/EMTs launch a peer support recovery group. Even if she is present in the group, she lets the first responders lead. She is there not as a counselor but as moral support, she says. If the group asks for her clinical advice, she provides a quick blurb on how the brain works or offers tips such as how to get better sleep. She then fades into the background and lets the group take control again. The goal, she says, is for the first responders to support one another.

Responding during COVID-19

The “invisible threat” of COVID-19 currently looms over first responders, Prochniak says. When they pull up on scene or respond to a call, they no longer know what to expect. They have to assume that everyone is sick or symptomatic, so they wear protective gear and practice physical distancing as best they can while still performing their jobs.

Clients have told Prochniak that although the number of emergency calls has decreased, the overall intensity of those calls has increased. More calls have been made related to suicide and domestic violence.

Most first responders are anxious about what the future holds, Dakin says. They worry about the health of their families and co-workers and their own health. They are concerned about people in the community who often rely on their services and who aren’t calling right now. And they are anxious about the types of calls they will receive once call volumes return to normal.

Prochniak is helping his first responder clients manage their anxiety over the COVID-19 pandemic by having them focus on what is in their control. They may not be able to reduce their threat of being exposed to the virus, but they can develop a plan for what they would do should they be exposed. Would they live in the garage, in a tent in the backyard, in a hotel? How would they handle child care?

Whittaker admits that listening to first responders’ experiences can be difficult, but she also appreciates that they are willing to share something so personal with her. She makes a point of ending each session on an uplifting note. They might talk about how the client demonstrated bravery, how much the client has improved at using a particular counseling skill or how an experience worked out better than the client expected.

“When you see change in somebody’s life,” Whittaker says, “it’s easier to hear these difficult stories because you have a role in making it a little better for them.”

 

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Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist. Contact her at hello@lindseynphillips.com or through her website at lindseynphillips.com.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

4 Comments

    1. Lindsey Phillips

      I agree that emergency medical staff, including nurses and doctors, are among the first responder population. In the article, I provide an example of an ER nurse because they do play an important role and their mental health is important. In a future article, I could explore the mental health of nurses in particular. That would be interesting. I appreciate your feedback.

  1. Jennifer Chancey

    Thank you so much for this article! First responders often get overlooked when it comes to mental health services and their very particular needs. Making them feel understood will go a long way to breaking down barriers that prevent them from seeking help. I hope to see more like this.

    Reply
  2. Kimberly Ingram

    I am a mental health therapist and a law enforcement officer’s wife and mother. I specialize in First Responder mental health care because I know first-hand what the life is about. Thank you for this article!

    Reply

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