Public safety encompasses an array of professionals — from the dispatch call center to each aspect of emergency response and throughout the justice system. We call on these individuals every day to respond to emergencies and sustain our health and safety. These are difficult, often thankless jobs. They require a willingness to face tough situations with expertise and composure, frequently while in harm’s way. The added pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic has made it even harder to get ahead of the stress.

Because you need to be effective and serve safely, taking care of yourself is critical. As you explore these areas, take a moment to review the signs that it’s time to reach out for support. You will find a range of resources specifically for frontline public safety professionals, simple tips to build your resiliency and resources for your loved ones.

When to Reach Out

At times it’s easy to recognize signs that you need to talk to someone, even if you feel reluctant to make a call. But while the difficult calls and shifts add up, you may underestimate the effects of trauma and stress — and it becomes easy to overlook the signs that you need support. Don’t be reluctant to ask for help if you are experiencing any of the following warning signs.

Feeling irritable or angry. You may have a lack of patience for things that never used to bother you. It seems to happen at times when it doesn’t make sense to be that upset.

Feeling anxious, depressed, lonely or constantly sad. You may feel down, moody, or notice that you feel happy much less frequently. The bad days seem to far outweigh the good days.

Reliving traumatic events. You want to forget that call, the scene that unfolded, the devastation you responded to, but those memories keep reappearing, usually at unexpected times.

Isolating and lack of trust in others. You may feel alone, and you prefer to be alone. Usual interests and activities are no longer appealing to you. You may question whether anyone cares, including your leadership at work. You worry that even people who are normally close to you can’t understand how you feel.

Experiencing compassion fatigue, burnout or moral injury. You may find it difficult to empathize with others, and are bothered by situations and events that feel very wrong to you. The cost of serving your community is taking a toll on you with every shift.

Struggling to sleep or oversleeping. You may be negatively impacted by shiftwork and have little recovery time. Sleep is interrupted or elusive, and you never seem to feel rested.

New or increased substance use. You may feel that it is much easier to find ease or solace with a few drinks. But you or someone close to you has noticed an increase in how much you are drinking.

You may also be experiencing physical issues that impact you in unexpected ways.

  • Digestive and/or appetite problems
  • Increased aches and pain
  • Sexual and/or reproductive issues
  • Executive function and memory problems

The COVID-19 pandemic has created some unusual circumstances in addition to the daily stressors you face in the public safety profession. It can seem overwhelming. These feelings are normal, but they can take a significant toll on your well-being.

It doesn’t mean that you are destined to have a long-term mental health condition because you’re experiencing this, but addressing signs and symptoms is vital to ensuring lifelong mental health and wellness.

Taking care of yourself is essential — and NAMI can help.

Confidential and Professional Support

Supportive resources for public safety professionals can range broadly in what they offer. It is important to have options, but sometimes professional mental health support is necessary to address what you’re going through.

There are number of free, confidential and virtual support services available for public safety professionals. You can access these services without concern for your career, and they are staffed with professionals who understand your line of work. Find one that is right for you.

  • 911 At Ease International provides access to free trauma-informed counseling for first responders and families, including police, fire, paramedics, emergency medical personnel and other essential agencies.  
  • 1st Help offers quick access to organizations assisting first responders with a range of topics from peer support to mental health care and financial aid.
  • Responder Strong offers support for all emergency responders and their families including referrals, self-help tools and educational resources.
  • You Responder Strong is an interactive site that you can personalize with tools and resources for self-care.
  • Armor Up provides trauma informed prevention, training and education. They are linked with the Safe Call Now hotline (206-459-3020).
  • Bulletproof lets you use your agency’s code to find confidential and anonymous resources that offer law enforcement professionals, and their families, mental health and wellness resources.
  • VALOR For Blue is an officer safety and wellness program with additional resources, training, videos and podcasts.
  • The All Clear Foundation is a comprehensive resource database dedicated to improving the life expectancy and well-being of emergency responders and their families.
  • Next Rung links firefighters and first responders to professional or peer resources.
  • Firestrong is a 24/7 firefighter and family crisis and support line.
  • National Fallen Firefighters Foundation provides resources, support and family programs.
  • First Responder Center offers tailored health and wellness resources.

You can also contact the NAMI HelpLine between 10am and 6pm ET at 800-950-6264 to access confidential, professional support. For immediate assistance, text “10-18” to 741741 at any time.

Peer Support Resources

Not everyone can talk about the topics and issues that first responders encounter. You see and experience things that are unthinkable to most, and that’s why peer support is important. Your peers know what it’s like, they share your perspective and they are ready to help their fellow responders stand strong. You are not alone.

Building Resilience

Public safety professionals understand stress; it is the basis of your work. Responding to emergency calls, fighting fires or interacting as a member of the justice system involves remaining calm in disturbing and often unsafe situations. You rely on training and a necessary amount of desensitization to trauma in order to do your job. From the dispatcher taking the call, to the emergency responders on scene, your training ensures public safety and helps save lives.

Desensitization to stress and trauma allows your training to take over so you can effectively respond. It is necessary and helpful to learn to absorb some of the shock. But those shocks can still add up, and even what appears to be a routine call can have a profound and unexpected impact.

Resiliency reduces the harmful effects of stress and trauma, helping you maintain your well-being. Strengthening and adding protective factors like social support, access to resources, and caring for your physical health all serve to help you effectively counteract cumulative stress. Think of it as a core muscle that you can strengthen through exercise, but will atrophy without care.

In the era of COVID-19, many of the methods you use to alleviate stress may not be available to you — like getting together with friends to decompress or working out at the gym. Whether you are hoping to add tools to your existing wellness routine, or are exploring resources for the first time, you have options. Before getting into specific strategies, start with these important steps.

  • First and foremost, give yourself a break. Your work is difficult, it is demanding, and you often witness what is unthinkable to most. It’s normal to feel the effects of stress and trauma, and those effects are not always the same for everyone.
  • Recognize what you’re feeling. Identify the emotions: shock, anger, sadness, fear, relief, etc. These are normal responses, and it is okay to feel them, in any combination. Calling them what they are helps you gain perspective on how to address them.
  • Identify the symptoms that are bothering you and pay attention to how they are impacting you daily. Talk to someone, professionally or using peer support.
  • Explore resources and keep track of go-to coping strategies. Every step you take to manage stress and trauma puts you in a powerful position to improve and protect your mental health.


Resiliency Skills and Tools

You may find many of these tips and resources helpful, and we encourage you to explore them to determine what you are most comfortable with and find useful. Be open to new strategies to build resiliency. You may be surprised at what sparks your motivation. After all, the most effective tool you have is the one that you actually use.

  • Identify your known sources of strength. Write down not just the ones that come to mind — family, friends, faith, pets, music and hobbies — but think about the things that bring you happiness and create strength.
  • Social support is protective, so reclaim relationships. When you connect with others, you build resiliency. If you feel alone, even during those times when you feel like being alone, take a minute to call a friend or videocall a loved one.
  • Reframe your thoughts in solution-oriented way. Ask yourself if you can change the problem at hand, and if so, how? If not, how can you accept it? Choose how your experiences shape your outlook.
  • Envision positive outcomes. This may seem simplistic, but resiliency is built in part on positivity. It’s not “touchy-feely,” but rather, fostering optimism and envisioning positive outcomes to improve your outlook.
  • Express gratitude. Each day identify something you are thankful for — and why.
  • How many firemen does it take to....use humor to cope? All first responders understand that humor is a coping mechanism, but you should also know that it has healthy short and long-term benefits. Listen to a stand-up routine, tell corny jokes with your kids, or watch a comedy. Rediscover the things that make you laugh.
  • Set the tone for each day. Take charge of the day from the outset with a healthy and positive habit. It can be five minutes of mindful meditation or prayer, ten minutes of stretching or even just a few minutes to focus on your goals for the day.
  • Limit your media exposure and the amount of time spent on social media to maintain a positive outlook. Continual review of negative stories and outcomes can increase your stress.
  • Create a list of tips and resources that you’ve tried and categorize them — what worked well, what you’re willing to try, what didn’t work for you, etc. Experiment with new approaches.
  • Create a list of strategies for taking care of yourself throughout your shift. You don’t have to be off duty to use stress management skills. Often, even the simplest thing such as tactical or box breathing, or stepping outside for a break, can make the day less stressful.


Wellness Resources

It goes without saying that physical health and mental health are intricately linked. You already know that you should be eating healthy, exercising and making a concerted effort to get quality sleep. This is not an easy task for public safety professionals, and the negative impacts related to shiftwork make it even harder.

You also know that the co-morbidities that make COVID-19 more dangerous are frequently the end result of the physical effects of your job: high blood pressure, excess weight, heart disease, among others. It has never been more urgent to take care of your overall health.

You don’t have to completely alter your habits overnight to improve your health. Rather than overwhelm yourself with unrealistic goals, start with a few small steps. Each step you take leads to improved motivation and healthier habits. Try these tips and resources:

  • Tips for healthy habits when working shifts.
  • Healthy nutrition suggestions for shift workers.
  • Keep up with your diet and exercise and track nutrition needs. 
  • Consider approaches to fitness that are outside of what you are used to. Things like yoga designed especially for first responders, or brief but targeted workouts. There are countless free fitness apps for targeting your goals, as well as your motivation.
  • Many people carry tension and pain in their shoulders and neck. Simple stretches can help with that. Take breaks during your shift to do some stretching and deep breathing.


Sleep

Battling sleep issues adds to your stress. Improved sleep adds to your wellness. Try to keep regular sleep patterns, avoid alcohol, be strategic with caffeine and get regular exercise. When that’s not enough, explore other resources for information and tips:

Support for Loved Ones

Being a family member of a first responder can be difficult, especially now. You worry about their health and safety, as well as how their challenging career impacts your family. With the added concern of COVID-19, the worry can feel overwhelming. It is important to have resources and support.

You may find it rewarding to begin a support network for families of public safety professionals in your area, or even sharing resources and support with others on social media. If you have no-cost resources you would like others to know about, please send them to frontlineresources@nami.org.

Other Resources

Having tools and information to use and share with others is important. Resources can be useful in different ways for everyone, so we encourage you to explore options as you build your resource toolkit. Continue to discuss with your peers what is available and update your go-to list frequently.

Other resources to consider:

  • CrewCare is a resilience focused app for first responders and healthcare professionals.
  • Staying Connected by Dr. Stephen Durant is a brief video for first responders.
  • Happify offers engaging activities to reframe negative thinking and improve stress response.
  • Badges United Foundation provides support, wellness services and events for first responders and their families.
  • Policing Matters Podcast is a Police 1 podcast promoting mental wellness in law enforcement.
  • Fitness Preparation is a fitness app integrating mind and body resiliency.
  • First Responders Bible and Spiritual Fitness Manual is free for first responders.
  • Road to Resilience Podcast is a presentation series on resilience, from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
  • Heroes Health is a free mobile app from the UNC School of Medicine. It helps health care professionals and first responders monitor their mental health and gain access to mental health resources.
  • First Responder Friday is a weekly podcast featuring public safety professionals and experts discussing a variety of topics related to first responder traumatic stress.

If you have no-cost resources you would like others to know about, please send them to frontlineresources@nami.org.

Blogs and Stories from Your Peers

From NAMI and #FirstRespondersFirst

View All
NAMI Image

An expert shares the actionable steps that first...

Read More
NAMI Image

Dr. Bob Carr, Chief Medical Officer at Kumanu, shares...

Read More

Stories from Your Peers

View All
NAMI Image

Veteran officer discusses how he syncs mind and body on a...

Read More
NAMI Image

These three words may be the most important three words...

Read More