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Protecting the mental health of first responders

University alumna, Jena Casas, Ph.D., shares five strategies for bolstering mental health and dealing with stress

Healthcare, mental healthcare, and police and public safety career paths attract service-oriented candidates who are motivated to help, give back, 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 healthcare, mental healthcare, and police and public safety professionals are unique; chronic and cumulative exposure to their work conditions places 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 shiftwork, including the quantity, duration, intensity, and unpredictability of scheduled hours of work and high patient/consumer caseloads,
  • risk for hazardous exposure (e.g., infectious disease, toxin exposure),
  • risk for work-related injuries (e.g., overexertion, sprains and strains, broken bones, chronic pain, heart disease, psychological injury) from patient handling, heavy gear, operational accidents, or other physically demanding and dangerous situations.

Many healthcare, mental healthcare, and police and public safety professionals encounter problems because they place the well-being of others before themselves and they experience stigma related to seeking help for mental health concerns. While valuing self-reliance and commitment to their work is commendable, it can also be harmful if it inhibits them from getting the support they need to preserve their well-being.

In 2022, The University of Nevada, Reno conferred close to 5,000 degrees, with the most popular majors including Community Health Sciences, Nursing, Psychology, Social Work, Public Health, and Criminal Justice. Students who earn these degrees often accept positions within healthcare, mental healthcare, and police and public safety field, and are perfectly situated to build resiliency prior to entering their careers. Sustainable wellness 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 stressed.

Stress management is most beneficial when a person can correctly identify and label their emotions and has adaptive coping skills available to regulate them. Many people encounter problems with stress management because they 1) don’t realize that the symptoms they are experiencing are signs of stress and 2) they utilize the same coping skill/s regardless of the problem, their context, or the efficacy of the skills.

Misinterpreting signs of stress and relying on narrow or maladaptive coping skills can exacerbate existing symptoms, whereas recognizing stress reactions and having several adaptive coping skills available will allow a person to flexibly respond to their circumstances and be effective across situations. Thus, one way to be proactive and build resiliency is to learn how the body reacts to stress and to try different coping skills depending on stress level and circumstances to learn what strategies are effective for you. Readers may benefit from information on stress and coping-related topics:

3. Learn how and where to receive professional support during times of high stress.

Successful stress management may include seeking professional help and obtaining a third-party perspective. Recognizing when you can manage stress on your own and when you may benefit from additional support is important. Depending on symptoms, needs, and preferences, it may be helpful to incorporate professionals from mental health, physical health, financial support, spirituality and religion, or other sources to experience relief. Thus, another way to be proactive and build resiliency is to identify and establish relationships with professional support so that you are comfortable with them, and they will be available to you during future times of stress. Readers may identify resources via:

4. Develop healthy habits to optimize routine and functioning.

Learning what behaviors contribute to alertness, motivation, and good health and what behaviors contribute to fatigue, overwhelm, and burnout is instrumental to maintaining wellness. Additionally, recognizing the effects of work conditions (e.g., 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 resiliency is to develop healthy habits to optimize basic functions, such as routines for sleep, nutrition, and physical activity. Education curriculums for healthcare, mental health care, and police and public safety fields often include internships; students may benefit from using these opportunities to ask questions about healthy habits and learn how employees adapt their routines to their work conditions and maintain their well-being.

5. Develop interests, hobbies, and relationships unrelated to the career.

Having a “typical” schedule and firmly committing to future events can be difficult among healthcare, mental healthcare, and police and public safety professionals. It is common for these professionals to spend increasingly more time with co-workers and in activities related to their jobs, simultaneously narrowing their interests and social circles. While on the one hand, this strengthens work-related skills and bonds, on the other, it extends the time spent in a work-oriented mindset and can contribute to burnout. Thus, another way to be proactive and build resiliency 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 both 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 one. Proactive planning and preparation go a long way towards intentionally building resiliency among healthcare, mental healthcare, and police and public safety professionals.

About the author

Dr. Jena Casas (clinical psychology Ph.D., ’21) is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Consultant. 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 consultation to law enforcement agencies interested in officer wellness.

Dr. Jena Casas headshot
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