On the Frontlines: Five Critical Actions for First Responders in Mental Health Crises

May 22, 2024

4 mins

Jackie Rosu


First responders can experience extreme stress during a crisis, which can build and lead to burnout or secondary traumatic stress. 

It is important for a first responder to approach a mental health crisis properly. They must take care of the person in need and themselves. If unprepared, a first responder runs the risk of being harmed, injured or worse. As a result, organizations have developed various strategies to help first responders address a mental health crisis without compromising their safety.

In this piece, we’ll explore the struggles of first responders and the strategies they can use when approaching mental health crises. 

First Responders and Mental Health

First responders are repeatedly subjected to the aftermath of various high-stress scenarios. This high exposure rate takes a toll. First responders have been found to experience depression, stress, PTSD, and higher rates of suicide and suicidal thoughts. In addition, a first responder can experience extreme stress during a crisis, which can build and lead to burnout or secondary traumatic stress. 

Burnout is when a person feels extremely exhausted and overwhelmed. Someone who is burnt out experiences symptoms such as depression, frustration, irritability, apathy, isolation, and poor self-care. They may feel like a failure, helpless, and like they need to turn to substance use to cope.

Secondary traumatic stress occurs through exposure to another individual’s traumatic experiences. They may also experience physical symptoms of stress, such as a racing heart or other side effects like being easily startled, having nightmares, and recurrent thoughts about a traumatic event. Additionally, a person may also feel ownership over other peoples’ trauma.

Strategies for First Responders

While first responders do experience higher rates of mental health problems, there are also peer support programs to help first responders cope, lower stigma, and team bonding. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have also released tips for first responders to take care of themselves.

To begin, a first responder can take steps to cope when preparing for a response. They can:

  • Prepare ahead of time by learning about their role in a response.
  • Come up with realistic ways to communicate with loved ones, especially if traveling or working long hours during a response.
  • Talk to their supervisor and establish a plan for fulfilling duties unrelated to a crisis while engaged.

Next, the CDC recommends that first responders develop a buddy system, in which they partner to support each other by monitoring each other’s stress, workload, and safety. 

As well, first responders can engage in self-care by: 

  • Limiting their working hours to 12-hour shifts
  • Working in teams
  • Limiting times working alone
  • Journaling
  • Talking to loved ones about their feelings and experiences
  • Practicing breathing and relaxation techniques
  • Maintaining a healthy lifestyle
  • Drawing boundaries
  • Limiting caffeine and alcohol

Finally, the Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) technique has been developed to help first responders effectively address mental health and substance use-related crises. 

What is the MHFA Action Plan?

The MHFA Action Plan (ALGEE) is a step-by-step action plan designed to help a person support someone experiencing a distressing situation. This action plan does not have to be followed to the letter every time but can be tailored to suit the specific scenario. By following these five steps, a first responder can address a mental health crisis.

Step 1: Approach, Assess for Risk of Suicide or Harm

A first responder should first find a suitable time or place to begin a conversation with a person in crisis, making sure to uphold their privacy and confidentiality. If this person is unwilling to speak to them, the first responder should encourage them to talk to someone whom they trust.

Step 2: Listen Without Judgement

It is important for the person in crisis to feel heard. Thus, a first responder can help by listening to them without interruption. The first responder should react with empathy and acceptance regardless of their own opinions.

Step 3: Give Reassurance and Information

After listening to a person in crisis, a first responder can give them both reassurance and useful information about their problem, providing hope.

Step 4: Encourage Appropriate Professional Help

First responders serve an important role. However, they are only the beginning of a person’s recovery journey. Thus, first responders should help a person in crisis learn more about available professional help.

Step 5: Encourage Self-Help and Other Support Strategies

Finally, a first responder can help a person in crisis become aware of support strategies they can use. This could be anything from creating a personalized emotional and physical self-care plan to calling attention to local programs and the person’s own support network.

Manage Your Mental Health With Never Alone Recovery

When approaching a mental health crisis, a first responder doesn’t have to wing it. By taking the time to care for their mental health and following the five steps of the MFHA action plan, they can help someone in need without compromising their own safety.

If you or a loved one is struggling with substance use disorder, then Never Alone Recovery can help. Contact us at 844-364-4445 to find out more about our online support group and addiction recovery consultants. Together, we can discover which Never Alone program is right for you.

first responders, mental health crisis

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