There is an overwhelming need to manage the mental health and psychological well-being of emergency service workers, including police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, correctional officers, and dispatchers. To address these concerns, peer support programs have garnered increased interest and support in the first responder community. Most of the work in this area has focused on qualitative feedback, such as self-reports concerning the perceived impacts of peer support programs. However, little attention has been directed to delineating the steps taken to design these programs, unique considerations for first responders, or methods for the empirical examination of the programs’ efficacy.
The authors will discuss the collaborative efforts between a university psychology department and a sheriff’s office to create an effective peer support program for the agency’s sworn and civilian personnel. They offer several considerations and strategies that may serve as guidelines for departments wishing to implement their own peer support programs.
Society relies on first responders to perform their duties effectively and make sound judgments in response to highly stressful, life-threatening situations. Due to frequent and ongoing exposure to traumatic events (e.g., motor vehicle crashes, domestic disputes, homicides, suicides), occupational stress (e.g., shift work, personnel shortages), and a pervasive stigmatized view of mental health in the emergency service culture, there is increased risk for behavioral and psychological problems among these workers.
Possible long-term effects of the physically and mentally demanding nature of a first responder’s job include alcohol abuse, depression, sleep disorders, marital discord and domestic violence, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicide. Consequently, first responder peer support programs that may help treat these mental health concerns are clearly needed.