First Responder Mental Health and Wellbeing
Bouvé College of Health Sciences and Northeastern University Seattle have launched a unique program to support first responders’ mental health and well-being, particularly in the Seattle area.
This continuing education program was recently highlighted during the Seattle Campus Showcase on October 25, 2022, as an example of an ongoing constructive dialogue between our campuses, and of co-creation with the Seattle community. It is also created in collaboration between the Department of Applied Psychology and the Continuing Education Center at the Bouvé College of Health Sciences. The Continuing Education Center at Bouvé provides diverse continuing professional development and education through enriching credit and non-credit experiences.
During the 3 years that this team has been active, we have emphasized several principles, which include:
- To identify emerging trends in healthcare and public health that would benefit from education and training and expansion of professional credentials.
- To design programs that are flexible and relevant to diverse learners and industries; inter-professional
- To be timely so that programs can be offered as soon as the need is identified and are informed and motivated by current events and health topics; as well as adapted to the needs of particular organizations, professions, and locations.
The program to support first responders’ mental health and well-being, was envisioned with these principles in mind.
The time was spring 2020 when the start of the pandemic sparked multiple conversations and ideas in Bouvé about how to support Northeastern staff during these disorienting times such as the program “Healthy Together” through which Bouvé clinical experts offered regular Wellness sessions. Another example is the Webinar “Selfcare and resilience for Healthcare workers” which was a collaboration between several departments on the Boston campus led by Maria Van Pelt, then Dean of the School of Nursing, and was geared toward health professionals.
Thus, the first responder program steps on some of the initiatives that Bouvé offered early in the pandemic and on the experience and community collaborations of the NU Seattle team. In our conversations with the NU Seattle team during the summer and fall of 2020, we discussed the local contextual events and circumstances. You probably remember that the first laboratory-confirmed case of COVID-19 in the U.S. came from samples taken on January 18 in Washington state, which activated the local Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to respond to the emerging outbreak. The first human case of COVID was confirmed in the state shortly after. A few months later, in May 2020, multiple protests erupted in Washington State and throughout the country, and particularly in Seattle, in response to the murder of George Floyd.
In line with our principle of offering education and training that is informed by contextual situations and needs, Ruth Ann Murray proposed ideas that were grounded in this context and focused on the stress that it was causing first responders. We were considering two directions– 1) the well-being of first responders themselves OR 2) developing first responders’ skills for working with the public to manage crises. To answer these questions, we started an extensive needs assessment, which ultimately guided our decision to focus on the first topic.
“For that panel discussion, the sky was the limit. We weren’t trying to narrow the topic, but to really hear from those folks who were the leaders of these units in terms of what they saw that need was” – Laura Dudley
Dr. Laura Dudley had been involved in both Bouvé initiatives mentioned above, providing guidelines to health professionals who were on the frontlines of the pandemic response and all of Bouvé staff. She was now invited to be part of the first responder mental health initiative to facilitate a panel discussion as part of the needs assessment. The panel included first responder leaders in the Seattle area and Paula Boyum, Ann Lesperance and Matt Riesenberg were instrumental in coordinating and inviting panelists. First responder leaders had the opportunity to talk about what the need was in terms of building capacity within their units regarding mental health.
After that panel discussion, a follow-up survey was also distributed to the participants, which helped us to really narrow the focus of what we would offer as a workshop for first responders in the Seattle area. Dr. Dudley and colleagues developed a workshop and she delivered it on two occasions – it focused on providing an overview of some common mental health issues, highlighting some myths and misconceptions regarding mental health. It emphasized the importance of getting help and what help might look like, and it also opened a discussion around some of the barriers to getting treatment and with a special emphasis on reducing stigma. Matt Riesenberg from King County Medic One collaborated closely with Dr. Dudley in the delivery of this workshop. He also collaborated closely with the whole team as we were creating the program, as well as helped to follow up afterward and elicit feedback on the workshop.
The huge interest in this webinar and the positive evaluations led us to consider expanding this course further and addressing the topics in greater depth. We initiated a collaboration with Dr. Kira Mauseth, who lives and works in Seattle and has extensive clinical and recovery from trauma professional experience. Dr. Kira Mauseth is a practicing clinical psychologist who also teaches at Seattle University and serves as a co-lead for the Behavioral Health Strike Team for the WA State Department of Health. Her work focuses on disaster behavioral health, resilience, and recovery from trauma. She has also worked internationally and in the US with disaster survivors and refugees and has trained first responders and health care workers; she serves on Washington State’s Disaster Medical Advisory Committee.
“I greatly enjoyed this workshop series. I will be able to use the information in many different aspects of my personal and work roles. The information was presented in an easily understood and practical way. It was easy to follow and slow enough that notes could easily be taken.” – Workshop participant
“The content of this class was useful and went deeper than any of the previous information I had received on the topic of mental health in first responders.” – Workshop participant
This three-part series is now a reality and covers several topics:
- Workshop 1: Managing long-term exposures to stress and trauma at work: common neurological and physical experiences, and how those experiences influence our interpersonal communication styles and strategies.
- Workshop 2: Behavioral Health Support for yourself and others when crisis happens: How to identify and effectively address signs of Burnout, Compassion Fatigue, and Moral Injury and engage in effective workplace-appropriate crisis intervention.
- Workshop 3: Anticipate, Plan, Deter: Building a Personal Coping Plan that works, that you will actually use, and how to engage in active and practical resilience-building without doing yoga or starting a journal (unless you want to).
We continued with the contacts and collaboration amongst our two campuses and with representatives of the community – Matt Riesenberg continues to be highly involved. According to him, “the workshops gave participants a great background in the current scientific research on work-related stress and PTSD, but they also provided action that they could start using at work and in their personal lives immediately.” Matt Riesenberg shared that there is uneven access for first responders for such training – in some departments, it is provided, in others, people do not have any access, and so the topic is overall relatively new to many first responder professions. Many departments do not know where to start, so this kind of high-quality training is very valuable. He stressed the importance of sharing stories about the situations first responders face, and their responses to them – rather than keeping them inside. “Create an open dialogue where we can discuss these topics and not just bottle them up”.
“Hopefully, the more classes like this we offer, the less stigma there might be around topics of mental health because I fear, that some first responders may be hesitant to get help because of that stigma…So if we can even just reduce that stigma, that might make someone more likely to reach out for help.” – Matt Riesenberg
King County Fire Chief’s Association Subcommittee on Mental Wellness in Seattle offered fellowships for enrollment in the program to their staff. The initial feedback has been very positive, both for the content and for the instructor’s skills in facilitating and teaching. We are now planning the next Series, as well as aiming to develop a Professional Certificate on this topic. We would also like to offer both the series and expanded programs to first responders at the Boston NU campus (NU Police Department, EMT professional), first responder professionals in the city of Boston, as well as at other NU Campuses.
According to Irina Todorova, “It is not surprising that when we talk about continuing education and workforce development, we often highlight this program as an example of one that emerges from current, local community needs, is appreciated by its participants, and is co-created through conversations and collaboration among academic and professional communities”.
If you are interested in this workshop for your own first responders, please contact Ruth Ann Murray at [email protected].
To enroll, please visit the First Responder Resilience and Behavioral Health course website.
- Irina Todorova – Clinical Professor in Department of Applied Psychology
- Ruth Ann Murray – Assistant Dean Bouvé College Graduate and Workforce development
- Laura Dudley – Associate Clinical Professor in Department of Applied Psychology
- Paula Boyum, Associate Dean, Northeastern University Seattle
- Ann Lesperance, Director of CSSH Programs at Northeastern University Seattle
- Matt Riesenberg, Chief of Operations, King County Medic One
- Kira Mauseth – Clinical psychologist; Co-lead for the Behavioral Health Strike Team for the WA State Department of Health