7 Steps to Address First Responder Mental Health

Recognizing the risks of disaster relief support through Psychological First Aid is critical to maintaining first responder mental health. These steps can help prepare for, decompress and recover from mental health impacts.


Because crises can occur anywhere and at anytime, first responders often find themselves helping people in intense situations that can have a devastating effect on their own emotions. Through Psychological First Aid (PFA), emphasis is placed on first responder mental health, ensuring the emotional needs of those helping others are maintained.

First responders should be aware of the risks providing disaster relief in emergency situations, including during the crisis and afterwards, to their mental health. Likewise, local governments should be aware of and help to address first responder mental health.

The Department of Veterans Affairs puts an emphasis on first responder mental health in their Post-Traumatic Stress guide. By preparing to work in disaster and emergency relief situations, first responder mental health does not have to suffer. Preparing for the unknown, organizing personal responsibilities, being aware of stress symptoms and utilizing the anti-stress policies offered by organizations are steps first responders can take to combat PTSD. First responders that follow these seven steps can prepare for, decompress and recover from mental health impacts crises and disasters may present.

#1 Be Prepared for the Unknown

Crisis and disaster relief include anything from search and rescue operations to supply distribution or treating injuries. Understanding that situations can rapidly change at a moment’s notice and without warning is part of being ready and will have a positive effect on first responder mental health.

#2 Prepare Your Family

Worrying about personal responsibilities and family members while working in a stressful environment can take a toll on your ability to focus. Take steps to ensure you are fully engaged by eliminating other concerns, such as:

  • Ensuring your family will have adequate support in your absence
  • Prepare for any financial concerns that might arise
  • Make arrangements for pets to be looked after in your absence
#3 Consistently Assess Your Mental Health

It’s easy to put yourself on the back burner when working in situations where others are experiencing horrific trauma, but a lack of awareness of your mental and emotional health can lead to a downward spiral. Stress reactions to intense situations include:

  • Difficulties sleeping
  • Substance abuse
  • Numbing
  • Irritability or anger
  • Confusion
  • Physical reactions, such as a stomachaches and headaches
  • Depression or anxiety symptoms

If you begin experiencing any of these symptoms, please reach out to other first responders and let them know you’re struggling.

#4 Be Aware of Your Organization’s Mental Health Policies

Most agencies and organizations are aware of the importance of first responder mental health, and have guidelines and policies in place to address it, such as:

  • Mandated time off
  • Shift limits
  • Task rotation to limit burnout in high-stress situations
  • Employing enough providers
  • Encouraging peer partners
#5 Utilize Self-Care Strategies

Take time to focus on personal needs, such as making sure you are eating enough, exercising and taking time to relax. Know your limitations and step away when it’s warranted. Focus on putting stress away and immersing yourself in activities you enjoy, such as spending time with friends or family.

#6 Be Aware of Actions That Increase Stress

While working in emergency relief situations, it’s easy to slip into habits that can lead to decreased mental health, such as:

  • Extending periods of working alone
  • Taking few breaks
  • Excessive use of food or substance as a crutch
  • Non-helpful self talk, such as, “It would be selfish to take a break,” and “The needs of survivors are more important than needs of helpers”
#7 Assess Your Mental Health After Emergency Relief Work

Stress can take time to manifest, and it’s important to be aware in the days and weeks after working in disaster relief. Many organizations institute exit exams that are designed to help first responders decompress after an emergency crisis, as well as encourage and distribute information about counseling options.

Organizations can also help reinforce the important work of first responders by highlighting to relief workers the positives after a crisis, such as number of people saved, and other uplifting statistics.

Rachel Engel is an award-winning journalist and the senior editor of FireRescue1.com and EMS1.com. In addition to her regular editing duties, Engel seeks to tell the heroic, human stories of first responders and the importance of their work. She earned her bachelor’s degree in communications from Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma, and began her career as a freelance writer, focusing on government and military issues. Engel joined Lexipol in 2015 and has since reported on issues related to public safety. Engel lives in Wichita, Kansas. She can be reached via email.