Confronted by the relentlessly high-stress nature of their jobs, first responders must find ways to share some aspect of their work with those who care about them, and force themselves to take time off away from the daily grind.
Otherwise, they won’t be able to be at their best in service to those who depend on them.
Those were among the messages conveyed during the Nov. 10 Center for Homeland Defense and Security Alumni Hour entitled, “An Hour to Focus on Executive/First Responder Mental Health.”
The webinar featured UC Santa Barbara Counseling and Psychological Service Associate Director Dr. Brian Olowude and was moderated by CHDS Assistant Associate Director for Academic Programs Sarah Bentley, a licensed marriage and family therapist and professional clinical counselor.
Billed as a discussion on topics such as chronic fatigue, imposter syndrome, and stressful work environments, the online events included a Q&A between Bentley and Olowude, as well as an active chat session that included engaging input from participants.
Asked how he would advise first responders to deal with the stress of “running toward emergencies on a regular basis,” Olowude acknowledged the often-confidential nature of first responders’ work but said it was essential to find a way to share some aspect of what they had gone through with a partner or loved one. That could also involve contact with an animal, such as a dog or a hamster, or even a plant, he said.
As far as strategies for handling “compassion fatigue,” Olowude said it is important to take time off away from the everyday stress of a first responder’s job, adding that it doesn’t have to be an exotic vacation to Hawaii but simply a planned day at the mall or watching Netflix or even a remote walk without cell phone access.
Olowude distinguished compassion fatigue or “burnout” from PTSD, which he said should probably require professional help.
He added that during the COVID-19 pandemic he had seen people working for days and weeks on end without a break, and said that can’t be done without consequences including impacts on one’s mental and even physical health.
New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Assistant Commissioner and CHDS alum Chris Paquet said he has witnessed death and destruction during COVID-19 and other challenges that has damaged his health as a result of stress and a lack of sleep, even affecting his blood work. Paquet said it is important to be mindful of one’s self and family, and talk to others. He added that first responders must find a way to “push ourselves through to real recovery,” including proper rest, or burnout will return.
Olowude agreed that focusing on recovery is essential, adding that those who do so should remind themselves they’re doing it to get better and are not being selfish. He said he would write into all job descriptions the requirement to take respites from the job, noting that sleep deprivation is used as torture “but we call it dedication when it involves our jobs.”
Rest and recovery, Olowude said, can be seen as helpful to others as well. “If I take care of myself, I can help others better,” he said.
After discussing a range of other issues such as expressing creative ideas without fear of punishment, imposter syndrome, and how to handle difficulties at work, as well as mental health support resources, CHDS Strategic Communications Director Heather Issvoran concluded by thanking Olowude, Bentley, and attendees for their participation, and suggested there may be another Alumni Hour dedicated to the same topic at some point in the future.
After the webinar, Issvoran said, “Our responders have had to deal with so much. They have been in a constant state of response since COVID. Having sessions where they can meet together and share their experiences as well as hear from experts that they need to take care of themselves is so important.”
Earlier, Issvoran mentioned next year’s APEX event set for Feb. 21-23, and pointed out there will be no Alumni Hour event in December, so the next Alumni Hour will be set for January.