Managing mental health as a first responder

By Anthony Cusat-

A Virginia Tech Rescue Squad ambulance is parked outside the station in preparation for a call in Blacksburg, Va., Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023. (Photo: Anthony Cusat)

In the event of some of the scariest medical emergencies, first responders can be seen as pillars of hope and strength. However, it is impossible to assume there is not a mental toll that comes at the price of helping others.

Riley*, an emergency medical technician located in the Harrisonburg area, is one of many emergency medical service (EMS) providers who has seen the intersection between mental health and the job firsthand. When discussing the effect of traumatic calls, Riley said that it is not necessarily the anxiety of performing duties in the moment but the aftermath that leaves a lasting impression. 

“When you see family members and friends grieving over the loss of someone, especially in such a traumatic way, it really really takes a toll on you,” said Riley, after detailing a gruesome on-call death. Even years later, Riley still experiences reminders of the incident when passing the spot where it took place.

Unfortunately, Riley’s experience is not unique to first responders. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 30 percent of first responders develop mental health conditions like depression and posttraumatic stress disorder which is 10 percent higher than the general population. 

In one study, it was concluded that first responders are at an increased risk of alcohol consumption after incidents that involve the death of citizens or coworkers. Use rose incrementally for eight days and returned to normal after eight months. Riley said, “Something that I feel like has been normalized is coping unhealthily with that stress… It [drinking alcohol] kind of has turned into, for some people, a legitimate problem.”

With these numbers, there is an increased importance for first responders to have access to adequate mental health resources.

Administrative captain of Virginia Tech Rescue, Isabella Filippone, said, “It’s not about experiencing a traumatic event and then taking care of yourself, it’s about taking care of yourself so that you’re prepared to see those types of things.” While the vast majority of calls tend to be minor incidents, Filippone said finding ways to healthily cope with the stress of major emergencies makes a difference on well-being.

Isabella Filippone standing outside a Virginia Tech Rescue Vehicle in Blacksburg, Va., Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023. (Photo: Anthony Cusat)

Among first responders, consistent themes for positive coping included having outlets to talk to and fostering a culture of openness. Riley, for example, is able to see a therapist that specializes in EMS-related trauma which they said helped them recognize lingering mental wounds.

Additionally, squad members rely on one another for needed support. Cameron Buck, assistant deputy chief of field operations at Blacksburg Volunteer Rescue Squad said, “I would feel comfortable myself going to any of our officers and talking about a tough call, but I would also feel completely comfortable sending someone else to any of our officers.”

When referring to first responders, Buck said, “It’s a group of people who collectively want to serve something bigger than themselves.” Despite the potential tribulations, those who serve as EMS professionals still have unbounded love for what they do. 

*For confidentiality purposes, the name Riley is an alias.

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