• Mariana Sierra

Mental Health for First Responders

Updated: Apr 12


MENTAL HEALTH FOR FIRST RESPONDERS


At the FRC we recognize that providing care to others during a tragedy like August 3rd can lead to stress, anxiety, fear, and other emotions. Coping with these emotions can affect the mental health of our first responders, the care they give to others while on field, and the well-being of their loved ones outside work.


During this episode we talk to one of our wonderful community partners, Dr. Deborah Ontiveros, founder of West Texas Responders Alliance (WTRA). WTRA is local nonprofit dedicated to support our region’s first responder community.


Throughout our discussion, we talk about the importance of recognizing what stress looks like and how to take steps to build resilience. We also discuss the current stigmas surrounding mental health among first responders and what family, friends, and the community can do to help them cope.


MENTAL HEALTH IS EQUALLY AS IMPORTANT AS PHYSICAL HEALTH


First responders are shields for communities-- they protect, rescue, communicate, serve, and heal populations. When tragedy arises, they rise too. First responders are trained to aid while they see heartbreak directly in the eye. Yet, first responders need care too.


I am the proud granddaughter of a first responder. My grandpa served for many years as a Fire Chief and Commissioner. As I prepped for my conversation with Dr. Ontiveros, I asked my grandpa about the importance of mental health for first responders, he quickly answered, “There’s no time for that. We’re called first responders for a reason, that is what we do—we respond.” First responders train to have the strength and physical condition to help others when most needed. However, as the years have gone by, we’ve seen an increase of mental health awareness across the nation and workforces. First responders are now encouraged to take care of their mental health similar to their physical health.


Yet, I wondered, how can first responders find the time or energy to take care of their mental health. Especially during these unprecedented times that the current pandemic has brought. Dr. Ontiveros shared that this can be done by taking small but frequent steps.


“Building resilience and a strong mental health is like training a muscle. Daily practice is key,” said Dr. Ontiveros during our conversation.


Dr. Ontiveros encourages the first responder community to do one activity that can boost mental health, whether it is talking about job challenges with a loved one, exercise, artistic outlets or joining support groups. Thus, when an unfortunate event occurs, their mental health is ready to cope with tragedy, just as their muscles are ready to carry out the job.


In a recent conversation with doctor, she shared how sometimes her job duties make her go numb to her patient’s heartbreak. Taking care of one’s mental health can also avoid numbness to tragedy. Dr. Ontiveros shared how small practices of mental health care and mindfulness can boost empathy and compassion when on duty.


STIGMAS AND FEARS FOR FIRST RESPONDERS


As we know, mental health carries many stigmas. Yet, as I spoke with Dr. Ontiveros, I realized that for first responders the stigmas may be heavier and harder to break. First responders are trained to be a strong figure since day one. They provide calm in the mist of disaster and, certainty in cases of stress.


However, it’s important to recognize that first responders can be overwhelmed with emotion as well. After all we are all human. Through our discussion, Dr. Ontiveros reminded us that it’s okay to not be or feel strong all the time.


Now, I wondered-- how can we ease the stigma? How can we create support systems and safe spaces for first responders to take care of their mental health?


According to Dr. Ontiveros, the first thing is to do is to provide education for leadership. Educate leaders on how to recognize signs of stress and how to address those within their teams. Second, it is also essential to provide different outlets for first responders to address their emotions without the fear of exposing their job security, for example non-traditional therapies and support groups.


LOVING A FIRST RESPONDER


Family members and loved ones of first responders can also be impacted by the challenges first responders face. Dr. Ontiveros encourages family members and loved ones to be also mindful of their own mental health and work together as a team.


Fortunately, there are plenty of resources for family members and loved ones. One of Dr. Ontiveros’s favorite resources are support groups. According to Dr. Ontiveros, being able to talk to someone who is in a similar situation as you, may help you recognize and work on signs of stress.


In addition, family members and loved ones can set the example for first responders. By taking care of one’s mental health, it can ease the stigma and pave the way toward a better road.


NEXT STEPS TOWARDS HEALING


We are excited to share our partnership with WTRA and Dr. Ontiveros. If you are interested in enrolling in programming launched by WTRA, please contact our office at (915) 775- 2783.


Tune in to learn more about the importance of mental health for first responders and all the amazing work WTRA is doing for our region.

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