Supporting first responder mental wellness

June 15, 2022

Police, firefighters, and emergency medical services (EMS) personnel are on the front lines of the most challenging emergencies, incidents, and disasters, often endangering their own well-being and safety for the protection of others. Communities rely on these first responders to manage urgent and emergency situations where lives may be at stake. These professionals have many positive characteristics: a commitment to helping, a family bond among teams, strong socialization and social connections, a commitment to physical health and readiness, and self-sacrifice. These qualities make first responders vital to how Oklahoma faces traumatic events. But traumatic exposures also make them vulnerable to great risks to both their physical and mental health.

Amid a pandemic and higher levels of stress and mental health need across Oklahoma, first responders have continued to serve their communities while often dealing with growing levels of workplace stress. As a result, first responders have experienced rising mental distress, with implications for the future of these professions and safety in Oklahoma. As Oklahoma responds to the mental health effects of the past two years, policymakers at the state, community, and jurisdictional levels can mobilize continued and new support for first responders.

Key Takeaways

  • Oklahoma’s first responders have borne the brunt of community stressors since the onset of COVID-19. The resulting mental distress threatens first responder lives and may have significant long-term consequences for public safety in Oklahoma.
  • As the state deploys innovative efforts to reach first responders, mental health stigma threatens success. According to one study, as many as 60% of first responders say they need care, but fewer than half say they sought it fearing loss of job or reputation.

Supporting first responder wellness must be a top public safety and health priority in 2022 and beyond. Recommendations for local and state leaders include:

  • Fully deploying new statewide infrastructure supporting first responder wellness
  • Normalizing help-seeking at the top tier of leadership in first responder agencies
  • Training first responders in self-care and coping strategies
  • Growing and raising awareness of existing peer-to-peer support programs
  • Embracing specific strategies for supporting rural first responder agencies
  • Growing collaborative models of emergency response involving police, fire, EMS, and mental health mobile crisis responders
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