First Responders’ Mental Health Focus of UAMS Nursing Research

By Spencer Watson

But Jones, an assistant professor in the UAMS College of Nursing, has found that even within that family, there are certain things firefighters and EMT/paramedics are hesitant to talk about: the traumas of their jobs.

“Even though firefighters will swear by their brotherhood to run into fires together, at the same time they won’t tell each other certain kinds of things,” said Jones.

Last month, she received funding from the National Institute of Mental Health to study mental health services for emergency responders.

“I’m hoping to develop a comprehensive mental health service model that they will value and be willing to use.”

The obstacle, said Jones, is that first responders – especially firefighters and paramedics – encounter unique traumas in their environment.

“In no other job do you live away from your family for 24 to 72 hours and then go right back into normal life for three or four days. It creates a different culture.”

On top of that, their experiences and traumas accumulate not in acute bursts, as is typical for soldiers on deployments, but instead over the course of day-to-day duties during a career potentially spanning decades. Therefore, mental health models that work for other populations may not work for emergency responders.

“Peer support is an amazing model that has tons of evidence in veteran communities and in addiction and recovery communities. But it’s not being as utilized in the fire service,” Jones said. “There is a huge fear of lack of confidentiality.”

Sara Jones, Ph.D., APRN

Sara Jones, Ph.D., APRN

Jones said her newly funded research will build on two years of preliminary work she has done in interviewing active, former and retired first responders – whether professional or volunteer, serving in urban and rural departments – getting input about the variety of programs available. Her next step will be to form focus groups and attempt to update and refine those ideas to fit the specific needs of first responders.

For instance, she said, seeing a mental health professional who is aware of how a firehouse or paramedic service staffs its shifts would be helpful to them. Likewise, providers need to be trained in trauma-specific therapy, not simply talk therapy. First responders deal with some very traumatic situations, suicides and injuries to children being among the most commonly cited.

Importantly, though, Jones said she won’t be meeting with focus groups to provide intervention, like sitting down with a therapist. Instead, the goal will be to talk with them about various methods of improving mental health education, prevention and treatment and what forms those services might take.

“Promotion and delivery will be part of it,” she said. “How do we get word out about a service and how do we make it available?”

Jones also noted plans to talk to groups about mental health screening.

“They are all required to do an annual physical evaluation to make sure their physical health is ok,” she said. “Without me even asking, some responders recommended annual mental health evaluations for the same purpose.”

Once various components of this mental health service model are discussed with focus groups, Jones said, the final step of this project will be talking to departmental administrators and higher level stakeholders at the state level to determine which solutions are actually feasible.

Implementation of this model will likely take further grant funding, but Jones said the evidence elicited from this current work will help her obtain the funding.

“You can ask most of them if they were ever trained to be aware of their own mental health, and they’ll say maybe for 20 minutes in training. It was covered over two pages in a much larger handbook,” Jones said. “You think you’re strong enough to do this and that you’re not going to have any trouble with it. Then you have a pediatric call with a fatality on the first day.”

To most, this is their worst day ever. To first responders, this is their job.

“We need to better serve those who serve us.”