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Volume 54, Number 2 Spring 2021
Edited by Candalyn B. Rade, Penn State Harrisburg
The Criminal Justice Interest Group Column features the work and ideas of our members. We encourage readers to reach out to the column authors if they are interested in learning more or exploring possible collaboration. We invite readers to join one of our upcoming Learning Community Series presentations during which Criminal Justice Interest Group members share their work virtually to foster a learning community. More information and recording of prior presentations can be viewed at https://scra27.org/who-we-are/interest-groups/criminal-justice-interest-group/. We also invite readers to check out the upcoming special issue of the American Journal of Community Psychology titled Criminal Justice and Community Psychology: Our Values and Our Work, guest edited by interest group members: Carolyn Tompsett, Jessica Shaw, Candalyn Rade, Benjamin Fisher, and Nicole Freund. This special issue was developed out of conversations and collaborations within the interest group with the intention of exploring how community psychologists engaged in value-driven criminal justice research, practice, and policy.
Written by Jeanette Kyle, National Louis University
First Responder is a term that refers to a person with personalized training who is among the first to arrive and provide assistance at the scene of an emergency, such as an accident, natural disaster, or terrorist attack. Some examples of first responders are doctors, nurses, police officers, corrections officers, firefighters and paramedics. The COVID-19 pandemic created much social upheaval, and while it altered norms for all members of society, its effects on first responders have been particularly profound (Stoner et al., 2020). Frequent exposure to traumatic events can lead to vicarious trauma and other stress-related illnesses. There are factors that contribute to the increased possibility of first responders being affected. Lack of support, lack of resources, and inability to process and cope with daily stressors may make first responders struggle and unable to change their situation or how they perceive the situation. These struggles, unaddressed, compile and compound and can eventually become overwhelming. The negative stigma attached to first responders (the helpers, superheroes) often keep them from asking for help. Too often they feel their work has become dehumanized, that they are scrutinized within their workplace when they have asked for help, all of which can escalate their feelings of shame and guilt. Law enforcement officers suffer from mental health problems at rates greater than the general population. This was true even before they had to deal with the added stress and uncertainty of the pandemic (Hartley et al., 2011). As a result, too many prevent themselves from seeking help and end up, for long periods of time, suffering in silence.
First responders have been faced with frequent exposure to traumatic events and now are inherently confronted with new stressors and challenges associated with COVID-19. Their psychological abilities are often impaired and the number of distractions that pull their attention away have increased. As a result of the continued and increased traumatic events, their overall wellness is in jeopardy. They also struggle with evolving regulations, ever-changing departmental policies, enforcing unpopular shutdowns, and fear of contacting COVID-19 and stress proliferation.
Stress proliferation, primary and secondary, can be applied to COVID-19. An example of primary proliferation would include adapting to shift schedule and work rotation. Secondary stress proliferation occurs where COVID-19 precautions affect family life. First Responders working in the public may choose to avoid extended contact with family in case they contracted COVID-19 (Stogner et al., 2020). Stress proliferation also depends on support and mental health resources. The lack of support, lack of mental health resources, and feeling dehumanized all continue to compound each other leading to stress-related illnesses. Lack of education, training, and sometimes not knowing that they are struggling may lead first responders to utilize negative coping skills or none at all. Unfortunately, dealing in a negative manner may look like similar psychological outcomes of the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 where, for instance, a third of officers of the Arlington County Police Department reported significant PTSD symptoms years after responding to the Pentagon (Robbers & Jenkins, 200). Over 20% of first responders in New York reported PTSD symptoms, with 5.4% reaching diagnostic thresholds over four years after the attack (Pietrzak et al., 2012). Suicidal ideation among officers also increased (Violate et al., 2006). The struggles experienced by law enforcement include depression, familial strife, misuse of alcohol, and suicidal ideation (Wang et al., 2010; Rees & Smith, 2008; Menard & Arter, 2013).
As community psychologists we can advocate, educate, and promote positive changes for mental wellness and continuum of care for first responders. First responders are visually able to recognize signs and symptoms of physical ailments. However, one may not know what psychological signs and symptoms look like or that they are suffering. Sattler, Boyd, & Kirsh (2014) found that the severity of trauma-related symptoms was positively associated with years of firefighting, burnout, occupational effort, and disengagement coping. They were negatively associated with critical incident stress debriefing attendance, posttraumatic growth, social support, internal locus control, personal characteristic resources, energy resources, and condition resources.
Promotion of mandatory debriefing, resources, support and training can help facilitate First Responders’ overall well-being. We, as community psychologists, can start by helping them to understand basic key terms about positive and effective coping skills. Here are some coping skill examples. For people experiencing anxiety, they could consider taking time out for a break and a deep breath, getting 7-8 hours of restful sleep each night, and engaging in regular exercise. For depression, positive coping skills include talking to someone about it, journaling, limiting alcohol intake, getting a routine, setting goals, eating healthy foods, challenging negative thoughts, and having fun. And for first responders experiencing PTSD, some positive coping skills are: exploring, expressing, and processing feelings; expressing needs; and eliminating/reducing negative impact of trauma-related symptoms on social, occupational, and family functioning.
First responders are faced with frequent exposure to traumatic events on a daily basis. The COVD-19 pandemic has increased their experience of vicarious trauma, burnout, compassion fatigue, inappropriate behaviors, substance abuse, and other stress-related illnesses. Left untreated, first responders continue to suffer in silence. Proper trainings, debriefings, support, self-care, positive–effective coping skills, and learning to explore, express, and process their feelings are ways for first responders to be more productive and sustain their overall well-being.
American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing. pp. 5-25
Cosic, K. Popovic, S, Sarlija, M. Kesedzic, I., & Jovanovic, T. (2020). Artificial intelligence in prediction of mental health disorders induced by the COVID-19 pandemic among health care workers. Croatian Medical Journal, 61(3), 279-88, http://doi.org/10.3325/cmj.2020.61.279
Stoner, J., Miller, B.L., & McLean, K. (2020). Police stress, mental health, and resiliency during the COVID-19 pandemic. American Journal of Criminal Justice, 45,718-730, http://doi.org/ 10.1007/s12103-020-09548-y
Sattler, D.N., Boyd, B., & Kirsch, J. (2014). Trauma-exposed firefighters: Relationship among posttraumatic growth, posttraumatic stress, resource availability, coping and critical incident stress debriefing experience. Stress and Health, 30(5), 356-365, http://doi.org/ 10.1002/smi.260