First responders, when they become first responders, are some of the most physically and mentally fit people in our society. They are strong, resilient and willing to put their lives on the line for the safety of their communities. But when it comes to getting help themselves, it often seems like there’s nowhere to turn. With a shortage of clinicians in general, and an acute shortage of culturally competent clinicians for public safety professionals, peer support can be an effective way to provide critical assistance to our responders.
At Lexipol’s Connect 2023 conference, Dr. David Black, president of Lexipol’s wellness solutions, and Dr. Jaime Brower, vice president of peer support/clinician training and certification at Lexipol, discussed the mental wellness challenges facing first responders and how peer support can address them. In this session, Dr. Brower specifically outlines the benefits of peer support for first responders and how to effectively develop and maintain a peer support team at your agency. This involves implementing policies and procedures in support of your peer support team and ensuring team members receive continuous, high-quality training.
The Case for Peer Support in Public Safety
“Entering the profession, first responders are specimens of physical and mental health,” explains Dr. Black. “These are tough, resilient, strong people when they enter the profession.” What we need to understand then, “is how the profession chips away [at that] over time.” We know from research that the impact of repeated exposure to critical incidents, coupled with organizational and additional stressors that come with a career in public safety, makes first responders at increased risk of depression, PTSD and suicidal ideation. The question becomes: What are we going to do about it?
A well-selected and well-trained peer support team acts as a “force multiplier” for wellness in public safety agencies.
“Peer support teams are a huge piece of the solution,” Dr. Brower says. “If you have a really great peer support team, they are on the ground and they are able to engage early and for the prolonged period of time for recovery.” A well-selected and well-trained peer support team acts as a “force multiplier” for wellness in public safety agencies. Not only do these teams make support more readily accessible, they also contribute to agency and industry-wide efforts to reduce the stigma around seeking mental health help.
The Benefits of Peer Support for First Responders
There are myriad benefits of peer support for first responders backed by research. A few include:
- Increased self-esteem and confidence
- Increased sense of control and ability to bring about change in their lives
- Increased sense of hope and inspiration
- Increased empathy and acceptance
- Increased engagement in self-care and wellness
- Increased social functioning
- Decreased substance use, relapse rates and depression
- Reduced hospital admission and inpatient services rates
- Decreased stigma
Dr. Black and Dr. Brower’s discussion offers insight into how agencies can set their peer support teams up for success, to have the greatest positive impact on their personnel. From policy to training to support from leadership, an effective peer support team requires thoughtful planning and attention. But the results—for our first responders and our communities—are worth it.