You are always saving lives at work.
You regularly console strangers and sometimes hold a hand just before that person passes away. Or you risk your own safety for another person.
Either way your job can be emotionally and physically exhausting. Responding to tragedy every day with the pressure to keep people alive can slowly take a toll on your psyche — whether you identify as an EMT, firefighter or another type of EMS professional.
What happens when first responders are the ones in need of help? Every day we hear more stories about first responder mental health resources for PTSD and suicide prevention programs. And it’s about time.
James Boomhower, BS, FP-C, NR-P, C-NPT, is a Boston-based flight medic. With 15 years of experience, he is a lead instructor and test prep monitor for Distance CME, who frequently teaches our Critical Care Transport Review course.
Boomhower has witnessed his share of human tragedy, from people bleeding out on the concrete to babies taking their final breaths. He knows firsthand how difficult it can be to deliver heart-wrenching news to grieving parents who hang on every word — it is never an easy task.
Whether you work as an EMT, paramedic or firefighter, first responders know all too well these hardships are part of your job. That is, until the job takes more than it gives — effecting your first responder mental health.
That’s why Boomhower started Fit for Duty — a mental health and suicide prevention advocacy campaign for first responders. He wants to help his colleagues find the help and resources they need when they need first responder mental health services.
“We want to bring awareness to suicide prevention in first responders, so we can wear down the stigma that first responders do not need help,” Boomhower said. “Our tagline is, ‘It’s OK not to be OK.’ “
Daily habits can make all the difference for first responder mental health
Good first responder mental health starts with focusing on the basics. These include staying hydrated, eating well and getting enough sleep, Boomhower said.
It might sound simple, but it provides a foundation for good health that cannot be underestimated, he said. He likens the idea to turning off your cell phone periodically to give it a reset.
When you feel rushed or stressed, it’s common to reach for junk food and quick, processed meals, he said. A poor diet on a regular basis can make you feel even worse, Boomhower said.
This often becomes a vicious cycle of eating poorly, feeling bad and not wanting to get back on track. All of which affects your mood.
“People want to do complex therapy like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and cognitive behavioral therapy — which is all good, but it should not be at the expense of sleeping, eating well and good hydration,” Boomhower said.
Learn how to set boundaries
Learning to take care of yourself may seem like a no-brainer. But for some, the choice is not that easy.
Sure, it’s nice to get a pay boost with extra overtime shifts. But here’s the question: Is it worth it?
“I’m learning to say no,” Boomhower said.
But sometimes he admits he feels a twinge of guilt because he knows his squad is probably short-staffed and him being there could make the difference in saving a life that day.
“It’s a sign of maturity when you can say no to the overtime — and instead realize your plans today were to workout, or to see friends or to get some much-needed sleep,” he said. “It’s not always about getting a paycheck.”
By acknowledging his needs in the moment, he has learned to better care for himself and recharge his batteries. Some people refer to this as a mindfulness practice.
First responder mental health resources
Boomhower said more mental health resources are becoming available, but some are better than others.
“My ultimate goal is to get help for people, and if we can’t get you some help, we know who can,” he said.
Below are some organizations recommended by Boomhower. He also works with and knows the people who run them.
- Fit for Duty — This program is a safe place for all first responders — EMS personnel, helicopter emergency personnel, nurses, fire fighters and police. “[We] talk about the challenges facing mental health awareness,” said James Boomhower, BS, FP-C, NR-P, C-NPT, program founder.
- 911 Buddy Check — This program offers crisis intervention, substance abuse counseling, and health, nutrition and total lifestyle coaching. “Everyone who works for me is either a 911 dispatcher, paramedic or fire fighter,” said Daniel Mills, NRP, FPC, president and program founder. “And everyone is either still working on the line or retired EMS.”
- Uniformed Services Peer Council — The council finds services and provides referrals for people who work in EMS, fire, police/law enforcement, disaster services, dispatch and military. “Our focus is on finding direct help for first responders and veterans,” said Dennis Cole, paramedic, president and peer council founder. “If people call in, we place them immediately, regardless of their insurance status or ability to pay. We usually place them within 24 hours.”
- 911 Training Institute — This organization helps first responders build resiliency. They also train mental health professionals how to work with first responders, Boomhower said.