The Role of Peer Support and Creating a Culture of Open Conversations
First responders, which includes police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and paramedics, face unique and often traumatic experiences in their line of duty. The nature of their work exposes them to high levels of stress, which can significantly impact their mental health. Unfortunately, seeking help for mental health concerns remains stigmatized in many first responder workplaces, leading to significant barriers in communicating about and accessing support and resources. This article explores the importance of destigmatizing help-seeking, the role of peer support, and strategies for creating a culture that promotes open conversations in first responder workplaces.
No More Stigma
For many first responder organizations, the prevailing notion is that seeking support is a sign of weakness. This assumption turns out to be factually incorrect. Research consistently supports the notion that seeking mental health help is a sign of strength and is more likely to be pursued by individuals who possess inner resilience and strength. Studies have found that individuals who seek mental health help demonstrate higher levels of resilience, cognitive functioning, and social connectedness (Hartley, 2011; Hefner & Eisenberg, 2009).
Despite research confirmation that seeking help is a sign of strength, the stigma associated with mental health help-seeking is alive and well and is a huge barrier for individuals. Studies have shown that stigmatizing attitudes towards mental health issues within organizations prevent individual employees from seeking help. Stigma can create isolation (real or perceived) and can contribute to a decline in mental health. First responders with declining mental health have been proven to be less compassionate and productive (Andersson et al., 2022). This all provides clear evidence that we all could do better and should emphasize that seeking assistance is a normal and necessary part of maintaining one’s mental well-being.
Support from Peers
Peer support, both in an official capacity and in unofficial interactions, plays a crucial role in destigmatizing help-seeking and promoting mental health. Official peer support programs involve trained colleagues who provide emotional support, guidance, and understanding to their peers facing mental health challenges and these programs offer a safe and confidential space with colleagues who may have walked a similar path (Leszcz et al., 2020). Unofficial interactions (such as friend-to-friend or supervisor-to-employee conversations) can also help to decrease isolation and mental health struggles while increasing a sense of support, organizational connectedness, and resource sharing.
Research has shown that peer support interventions significantly decrease symptoms of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder/injury (PTSD/I), especially within first responder careers. By engaging with peers who have experienced similar challenges, individuals may feel more validated, understood, and encouraged to seek professional help when needed (Carleton et al., 2020). This is an important first step.
If your organization does not have an official peer-support group, be encouraged to be the catalyst of change. To establish an official peer support group at work, consider the following steps:
- Gather Support: Start by finding like-minded individuals who are interested in promoting mental health and well-being in the workplace. Reach out to colleagues who have expressed their support or have personal experiences related to mental health. Forming a core group of supporters will help create momentum and increase the chances of success.
- Present a Proposal: Develop a clear and concise proposal outlining the purpose, goals, and benefits of establishing a peer support group. Emphasize how it can contribute to a positive work environment, employee well-being, and benefit the community. Resources such as First Response Mental Health can help with this.
- Seek Official Endorsement: To gain official recognition and support, it is essential to obtain endorsement from organizational leadership. Highlight the research-backed benefits of peer support groups. Engage in discussions to secure commitment and obtain necessary resources, such as meeting space, financial support for activities, or access to training programs.
Creating a Culture of Open Conversations
To promote open conversations about mental health, organizations should prioritize creating a supportive and psychologically safe workplace culture. It is crucial to encourage and normalize open conversations and communication about mental health help in first responder workplaces. Research highlights the positive impact of such initiatives on mental health outcomes. One study found that employees who felt comfortable discussing mental health at work reported lower levels of depressive symptoms and higher job satisfaction (Cao et al., 20222). Another study confirmed that open conversations create a supportive work environment, which reduces stigma and increases early intervention for mental health struggles (LaMontagne et al., 2014). Furthermore, fostering a culture that prioritizes mental health can enhance employee productivity and retention (Joyce et al., 2015), which is important with the current staffing difficulties many first responder departments face. By promoting open and effective communication and conversations about first responder mental health, workplaces can contribute to the overall health and happiness of employees.
How do we do that?
Here are some strategies that can be implemented:
- Leadership Commitment: Leaders within first responder workplaces should openly discuss and normalize communication about mental health and explicitly state their commitment to supporting employees seeking help. This top-down approach sets the tone for the entire organization.
- Education and Training: Providing mental health education and training to all first responders can help increase awareness, reduce stigma, and equip employees with the knowledge and skills necessary for a healthy work environment. Training should cover topics such as recognizing signs of distress, effective communication, and increasing connectedness.
- Accessible Resources: Ensure that mental health resources and support services are readily available, well-publicized, and are with culturally competent professionals. Resources can include employee assistance programs (EAPs), mental health helplines, first responder wellness apps, and confidential counseling services. By providing accessible resources, individuals are more likely to seek help and know where to go when help is needed.
First responders face immense challenges, and their mental health should be prioritized. Supporting our heroes through destigmatizing help-seeking and fostering a culture of openness will not only benefit their well-being but also increase organizational success. By investing in and prioritizing first responder mental health, we not only protect the lives of our heroes but ensure their effectiveness in saving others.
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About the Author
Stephanie Kiesow is a writer, author, speaker, and law enforcement veteran. Stephanie served the Central Coast of California during her 16 years in law enforcement; the last several as a police officer. She earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology, a master’s degree in Industrial and Organizational Psychology (IO Psych), and is currently working on obtaining her Ph.D. in IO Psych. Stephanie also holds many certifications from various organizations, including ones that involve psychological autopsies.
In 2022, Stephanie left her job as a police officer and now helps departments and corporations increase organizational safety and wellness through anecdotal and science-backed methods. Stephanie has been a contributing writer and a curriculum creator for a handful of organizations and has been invited to speak for several conferences, associations, and trainings.
When not writing, teaching, or presenting, Stephanie enjoys spending time with her husband and young sons and taking care of her beloved dogs, cats, and chickens.