First Responder Peer Support Programs
By Emily Cnapich, M.S., Samantha Rodriguez, M.S., Bailee Schuhmann, M.S., Judy Couwels, M.A., Vincent Van Hasselt, Ph.D., and Jessica Blalock, M.A.
There is an overwhelming need to manage the mental health and psychological well-being of emergency service workers, including police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, correctional officers, and dispatchers. To address these concerns, peer support programs have garnered increased interest and support in the first responder community. Most of the work in this area has focused on qualitative feedback, such as self-reports concerning the perceived impacts of peer support programs. However, little attention has been directed to delineating the steps taken to design these programs, unique considerations for first responders, or methods for the empirical examination of the programs’ efficacy.
Society relies on first responders to perform their duties effectively and make sound judgments in response to highly stressful, life-threatening situations. Due to frequent and ongoing exposure to traumatic events (e.g., motor vehicle crashes, domestic disputes, homicides, suicides), occupational stress (e.g., shift work, personnel shortages), and a pervasive stigmatized view of mental health in the emergency service culture, there is increased risk for behavioral and psychological problems among these workers.
Possible long-term effects of the physically and mentally demanding nature of a first responder’s job include alcohol abuse,1 depression,2 sleep disorders,3 marital discord and domestic violence,4 post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),5 and suicide.6 Consequently, first responder peer support programs that may help treat these mental health concerns are clearly needed.
Using peer support training as a strategy for identifying and intervening in behavioral and psychological issues is now widely recognized in the first responder community.7 Peer support is based on the notion that those who have overcome the impact of stressful and traumatic events are uniquely qualified to assist others dealing with similar experiences through increased awareness and vigilance, empathic responses, and personal validation.8 There are four main advantages of peer support programs.9
Provide training in the identification of risk factors for behavioral and mental health problems
Reduce stigma by encouraging conversation surrounding mental health and normalizing difficult experiences and adverse reactions to stressors of the job
Create an environment where people feel comfortable approaching one another
Link peers to outside professional resources for additional care when necessary
One study outlined guidelines for peer support in first responder agencies by utilizing a group of international practitioners and professionals to determine the main objectives of these programs. Identified as most significant were being compassionate, offering low-level psychological intervention (e.g., active listening and validating techniques), identifying peers that may be at risk to themselves or others, and acting as a liaison for professional help.10
While research concerning the efficacy of peer support programs is still new, there is preliminary evidence that they can improve an individual’s ability to deal with traumatic events.11 One study examined the effectiveness of peer support programs among 631 police officers in northern Colorado. Results revealed that 48.3% participated in peer support. Of that group, over half reported the support directly or indirectly helped them perform their duties and/or improved their home life.12
Some evidence indicates that peer support programs have higher participation rates than Employee Assistance Programs and outside mental health resources.13 These findings are consistent with the contention that consulting with a peer may reduce resistance and stigma associated with seeking professional help.
First responders are frequently exposed to stressors and traumatic events throughout their careers, often leading to the manifestation of various behavioral and psychological problems. Because the characteristically stressful nature of these professions will not likely change, departmental responses to managing employee stress and promoting well-being are of the utmost importance.
Peer support programs have become a widely accepted standard of care for many agencies. They serve as effective resources by reducing stigma surrounding mental health concerns and creating an avenue for first responders to feel comfortable approaching one another for support.
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