Serving Public Servants: How COVID-19 Has Affected the Mental Health of First Responders

Posted By: Hayley Twyman Brack Clinical Practice,

In research, it has been well-documented that first responders, such as EMS workers, police officers, and firefighters, face an increased risk of psychological stress due to their work. Studies have found that many of these frontline workers experience a high rate of stress on the job and that as stress increases, job performance may be negatively affected. Work-related stress is also associated with an increased risk of anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorders, and suicidal ideation among this population. Unfortunately, the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a significantly higher risk of mental health-related difficulties among first responders.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, many first responders have experienced an even greater increase in stress, along with anxiety, depression, and feelings of isolation, due to their role. Reports have indicated that these frontline workers are facing a decrease in social interaction with loved ones due to reported fears of transmitting the virus, disruption in sleep due to increased burden at work, increased health-related anxiety, and increased risk of substance use.

On top of the present danger first responders face when performing their duties, they may face stigmatization when off the clock. Research has found that first responders, including EMS workers, police officers, and firefighters, are at risk for being stigmatized due to their assumed exposure to COVID-19 patients, which may lead to a decrease in social engagement and support. First responders may face this bias from others, but reports have found that first responders may also stigmatize themselves as being “infected.” This stigmatization may lead to limited social interaction with others and an increase in negative emotions, which may exacerbate mental health struggles among first responders.

Unfortunately, studies have found that barriers to mental health care, including stigma among first responders that prevent them from seeking services and a general lack of resources, can increase first responders’ risk for developing chronic mental health conditions. Fortunately, the Oklahoma City metro has resources that aim to provide mental health care and support specifically for these individuals. The 10-8 Group in Del City is a support group open to first responders that aims to provide coping strategies and debriefing opportunities to those who serve on the front lines. Oakwood Springs in Oklahoma City also hosts the Help for Heroes program, which is a treatment unit that was created to serve first responders and military personnel in need of in-patient mental health or substance abuse treatment.

Few could have predicted the impact COVID-19 would have on first responders’ mental health and wellbeing. The pandemic has led to an increase risk of stress, isolation, substance use, and suicidal ideation among these frontline workers. Thankfully, the metro has two significant sources of support that aim to serve those who serve Oklahomans.