May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and Vector Solutions understands the significant impact mental health can have on the well-being of public safety first responders. In high-stress professions like public safety, police officers, firefighters, emergency medics, and telecommunicators frequently experience critical incidents that can cause traumatic stress responses.
Recognizing traumatic stressors brought on by critical incidents in yourself and your peers is essential for mitigating and managing stress. In a recent webinar, industry experts Cathy and Javier Bustos, known as That Peer Support Couple, and Solutions Engineer Johnny Roberson had an in-depth discussion on first responder stress management after experiencing a critical incident.
Not all stress is bad stress. Good stress can motivate you and prepare the body and brain for what's next, like taking the police licensing exam or a physical agility test. Such experiences may be stressful at the time, but once completed, it positively impacts your life. Traumatic stress is the result of experiencing a critical incident or trauma. It's an adverse physiological reaction, and it can greatly differ from person to person.
CISM, which cites 87% of all emergency service personnel are affected by a critical incident at some point in their career, defines a critical incident as "any event that has a stressful impact sufficient enough to overwhelm your usual coping strategies." Cathy and Javier Bustos dismantled the common misconception that everyone experiences a critical incident identically or even considers the same experiences as critical incidents.
"Just like stress affects everyone differently, so do critical incidents."
First responders face many traumatic experiences while performing their duties that can impact each person differently. From the death of a child to a mass homicide or an active shooter event, the personal experience of a critical incident affects how traumatic stress manifests.
Javier noted, "Everyone in their lives is at a different point in their mental health and their resiliency." And what you consider a critical incident today may change over time and with your personal circumstances.
Johnny shared a moving story about the death of a young child when his wife was pregnant with their first daughter. He recalled how he lashed out and threatened to arrest the ER doctor if he stopped working on the child after calling time of death. After getting worked up to the point that his supervisor had to intervene and remove him from the ER, he said it wasn't until he underwent Peer Support and Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CSID) training that he recognized what he had experienced was a critical incident.
"I remember being told when I first started out as a police officer at 21 years old that if what I experienced bothered me, I needed to find another job," Johnny stated as he recalled how different stress and mental health was understood early in his career compared to today.
Javier and Cathy emphasized how essential it is for those in public safety leadership to invest in the mental health of their workforce. "Any form of police reform or reimagining a police department has to include a robust physical and mental health program for employees," said Cathy. They listed the following as benefits of investing in their mental health:
Cathy honed in on how essential it is to invest in continuous training on stress, critical incidents, and mental health "from hire to retire" for first responders. Javier added, "Your educated first responders are going to be able to help each other out."
The panel reiterated how everyone's stress indicators are different and how important it is to recognize what they are for yourself and your peers.
Here are some common stress indicators highlighted in the discussion. Do they describe yourself or someone you know?
"I think anger is a big one. I think a lot of times, what happens is, when we see our partner angry, we sometimes do a disservice and don't attribute it to stress. We just think that they're mad at everything."
Just as important as Peer Support among first responders is the role of the first responder spouse. Johnny, Cathy, and Javier all shared how stress brought on by critical incidents has impacted their relationships. Javier remarked on spouses who have received the right education and understanding of stress indicators, "Your spouse is your first great peer you can have as a first responder." Spouses are often the first to recognize a change and are the first line of defense as the ones that know you best.
Managing stress is multi-facet and comprehensive. Javier acknowledged that communication is one of the best ways to overcome a critical incident, saying, "You have to be able to talk about what you're experiencing with your spouse or a peer."
That Peer Support Couple shared several additional self-care tips for managing stress, including:
The panel agreed that finding ways to destress and not bring your work life home is easier said than done, but worth the work. Mitigating and managing stress can improve aspects of your life outside of work, including your relationships with people in your personal life, like your spouse, children, and friends.
The following online training courses on stress and critical incidents for public safety are available in the Vector LMS course library: