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COVID’s Mental Health Impacts on First Responders

The global coronavirus pandemic has taken a toll on just about everyone, including the health care personnel and first responders who help people who are gravely ill, in crisis, and fighting for their lives. They put in long hours, going weeks without a break or time with their families. 

Nurses, doctors, paramedics, firefighters, police officers, and so many more are on the frontlines around the clock, answering the call to take care of others in need, even at the risk of losing their lives and contracting the life-threatening virus themselves. A Drugs.com report says higher COVID-19 infection rates have been seen among first responders in New York City as of November 2020.

So, with realities such as this, first responders are dealing with the loss of life and health and unimaginable trauma. They are facing situations beyond their control that have tested them in every way possible. They are working tirelessly amid stretched-thin resources and few answers as to how to deal with what’s before them and what comes next. They will ultimately have to find some way to deal with their personal pain and struggles.

The countless sacrifices first responders make do not come without a steep cost to their mental health. Stress, burnout, fatigue, overwhelm, sadness, grief, depression—it’s all there, and there is little time to recover from it all and practice the self-care they need. But taking care of oneself is exactly what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends as it recognizes the first responder community’s needs for support.  

“Providing care to others during the COVID-19 pandemic can lead to stress, anxiety, fear, and other strong emotions,” it writes. “During this pandemic, it is critical that you recognize what stress looks like, take steps to build your resilience and cope with stress, and know where to go if you need help.”

Feelings of Powerlessness and Other Emotions, Stressors

The CDC advises that first responders take time to check in with themselves to determine what they are feeling. It is easy to get caught up in the daily grind and not assess how the daily grind and hardships are eating away at one’s mental health. The federal agency lists the following as common symptoms of stress, which everyone deals with differently, it notes. 

First responders may feel helpless or powerless to help the people in their care, or they have trouble sleeping or concentrating due to being sad, depressed, irritated, or even in denial. They may lack motivation or struggle because they are uncertain, nervous, or anxious about the future.

All of these are normal responses to an unprecedented situation. More than 300,000 people have died in the U.S. alone from coronavirus as of this writing, with countless more falling ill, as USA Today reports.

There is concern about how this pandemic will affect the mental health of first responders. Many will develop battles with anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic disorder (PTSD) if they haven’t already. The CDC advises first responders with pre-existing mental health conditions to continue with their treatment plans and to keep track in case new symptoms develop.

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First Responders Are Not Immune to Mental Health Disorders

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that one in five people in the U.S. lives with moderate-to-severe mental illness. In 2019, that was more than 50 million people; it is likely that members of the first responder community are in this population. A Psychology Today article says that one way to help people in this community is to drop the protective shield and stigmatization and address that despite their jobs to help others, first responders need help, too.

A first responder dealing with trauma, stress, and other negative emotions may seek out drugs, alcohol, and other substances to cope with pandemic stress. They are vulnerable to develop harmful ways to cope with mental and emotional disturbances due to the demanding jobs they have. Self-medicating is common when dealing with internal mental health struggles, whether the person realizes they have them or not. 

Reaching for drugs and alcohol is a trauma response. Unfortunately, addressing such emotions and conditions with addictive substances is harmful in the short- and long-term. It only worsens the mental health condition and puts the user on the path of hard-to-break substance dependence or addiction. Struggling with a mental health disorder and a substance use disorder is challenging. The condition, known as dual diagnosis, comorbidity, or a co-occurring disorder, can be treated with approaches that address both disorders together at the same time.

Psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavior therapy and eye movement reprocessing and desensitization (EMDR), and medications can be part of an integrated treatment plan for dual diagnosis, says the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Serenity at Summit offers dual diagnosis care and other services that can help first responders take care of themselves for themselves and the others who care about them. Connect with us today so that we can learn more about your situation and how we can help you.

Tips for First Responders Coping with Pandemic Stress

The CDC offers strategies and tips for how emergency personnel can prepare themselves for the challenging jobs they have. 

A Globe wearing a mask during the covid-19 pandemic

The federal agency stresses the importance of “taking breaks, eating healthy foods, exercising, and using the buddy system can help prevent and reduce burnout and secondary traumatic stress.” It explains that secondary traumatic stress results from being exposed to someone else’s trauma rather than experiencing that trauma firsthand.

First responders who feel on guard all the time or feel like the traumatic event happened to them may be experiencing secondary traumatic stress. The CDC also recommends limiting the number of hours worked. It recommends that workers do not go past 12 hours on their shift.

Hearing news reports or seeing social media posts about the pandemic can be triggering for emergency responders, who need a break from upsetting news. If you are a first responder working through this crisis, limit your news intake to give your mind a rest.

There are ways to prepare for an emergency, which can help manage the stress that comes with these situations. First responders can learn more about their response role. This helps keep expectations realistic and achievable. They also may want to figure out how to be in touch with family and friends during long shifts.

Getting Help for Substance Dependence and Addiction

First responders need to know they are not alone in needing support to deal with a health crisis that has hit hard at home and abroad. 

At Serenity at Summit, we understand the link between substance use and mental health challenges. We can help you find a healthy way to deal with the hardships of life without drugs and alcohol that can harm your health.

If you have an addiction or feel you are in the early stages of one, please call us today so we can get started on a recovery plan for you. We offer medical detox, medication-assisted treatment (MAT), and family programs. Families are important to a loved one’s recovery, and they can benefit from therapy that can help them process their feelings about what their first responder family member has dealt with during COVID-19. 

Recovery from substance misuse is possible, and so is sobriety. Call us today so we can help you figure out your recovery program. We are here to guide you through this hard time.

Sources

CDC. Healthcare Personnel and First Responders: How to Cope with Stress and Build Resilience During the COVID-19 Pandemic. (n.d.). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/mental-health-healthcare.html

Higher COVID-19 Rates Seen for First Responders – Drugs.com MedNews. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.drugs.com/news/higher-covid-19-rates-seen-first-responders-93772.html

National Institute of Mental Health. (2018, July). Anxiety Disorders. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders/index.shtml

Zarracina, J., Haseman, J., & Petras, G. (2020, December 15). Comprehending the 300,000 people killed by coronavirus in America. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/in-depth/news/2020/12/14/coronavirus-most-deaths-deadliest-days-in-american-history-300-k-300000-three-hundred-thousand/3867824001/

What Is Depression? (n.d.). American Psychiatric Association (APA). Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/depression/what-is-depression

Drug addiction (substance use disorder). (2017, October 26). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/drug-addiction/symptoms-causes/syc-20365112

National Institute of Mental Health. (2020). Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/index.shtml

(August 2017). Dual Diagnosis. National Alliance on Mental Illness. Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-conditions/related-conditions/dual-diagnosis

Mental Illness. (n.d.). National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.shtml

Protective and Risk Factors Associated With Trauma. (2017, April 04). Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/towards-recovery/201704/protective-and-risk-factors-associated-trauma

“Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)” (n.d.). American Psychological Association. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/treatments/eye-movement-reprocessing

Emergency Responders: Tips for taking care of yourself. (2018, March 19). Retrieved from https://emergency.cdc.gov/coping/responders.asp

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