Our communities have become increasingly dependent upon our emergency responders, including public safety, first responder, and frontline health care — to help us in critical times. These emergency responders operate in many capacities: doctors, nurses, firefighters, EMS providers, law enforcement officers, search & rescue members, disaster responders, ski patrol, and so many others.
With the increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters, disease outbreaks, mass shootings, violence, and threats to life, all set against the backdrop of the unrelenting pandemic, we are experiencing an increased urgency for trained and qualified personnel to respond in the moment to save lives. However, the enormous amount of stress placed on the emergency responder community over the past 18 months is taking its toll.
Prolonged exposure to inescapable stress and trauma has overwhelmed the individual capacity of many to effectively cope. As a result, we have seen tremendous increases in burnout, compassion fatigue and anxiety among our responders.
Under this unprecedented stress, the cracks in our mental health and wellness support systems for these essential workers are growing, allowing too many to fall through. The population of culturally competent and trauma informed mental health clinicians uniquely qualified to work with these groups is too small and scattered to allow effective, timely treatment for what are now recognized as stress injuries: burnout, compassion fatigue, anxiety, depression — just to name a few.
Response work has always presented unique challenges to personal wellness; however, the extraordinary burden added to the load of our responders in recent times requires a new and innovative approach to better support them in their essential work.
Many who serve in these fields are self-motivated, preferring to initiate their own healing. In recognition of this, the need for a tailored approach that speaks their language, normalizes their human reactions, increases personal awareness, and guides to specialty resources is evident.
In a coordinated proactive effort to solve for this need, the All Clear Foundation, Global Medical Response, and Grit Digital Health joined forces with philanthropic support to develop a confidential and anonymous resource specifically for emergency responders and inclusive of their families.
In acknowledgment that the families of these personnel wear an invisible uniform, often struggling with the impacts of their loved one’s occupation without understanding the connection to the job, they are included in this effort.
YOU | ResponderStrong is a free, confidential, digital resource (“Tool”) that supports the emergency responder community’s overall wellness with a special focus on mental health. Launched in summer of 2020, thousands of users have created accounts, conducted private self-assessments, and connected with tailored support. With an average time-on-site of over 8 minutes for the YOU Wellness Tool (compared to the national average time-on-site for other interventions of 8-30 seconds), the importance of and appetite for a tool like this has been clearly demonstrated. Accompanied by a robust aggregate data collection system, the YOU | ResponderStrong Tool provides valuable real-time deidentified data related to the evolving needs and interests of the community. This data is then utilized to better guide the expansion and focus of the tool.
This resource is easily accessible — a web-based tool available through a browser in a website or app format- equalizing availability between rural and urban; career and volunteer; and active duty and retired personnel.
The content is vetted through the staff at Grit, including psychologists, and supplemented with validated content identified by responders and health care workers. The content is comprised of informative articles, short videos, and personal testimonials. Private self-assessments allow users to identify the wellness domains where they are succeeding and the areas where they could use some assistance.
Many ask why not just search for this information online. A general query is an inefficient option as search engines return numerous generic recommendations influenced by Search Engine Optimization, paid advertisements, and other factors without quality, relevance, or validity screening. The YOU|ResponderStrong Wellness Tool provides pre-screened, informed content tailored to the needs of the users. Additionally, features such as “Trending Topics” normalize the experience of individual users by profiling the topics searched by other users.
Self-care content is divided into three easily accessible categories: Succeed, Thrive, and Matter. Succeed covers academic and occupational achievement in addition to topics like finances and retirement. Thrive encompasses the range of topics we typically consider wellness: sleep, nutrition, fitness, stress, anxiety, depression, cardiac, and more. Matter addresses the existential concerns of identity, meaning, purpose, social connection, and spirituality.
Burnout is on a meteoric rise within the emergency responder communities not only because the demands on this population have increased so much over the past year and a half but also because self-care, the foundation of resilience, has fallen by the wayside during this prolonged crisis.
This innovative, easily accessible, free, and versatile tool is available to these caregivers and their families to use proactively to prevent burnout, to coach users in their own healing, and to validate when professional assistance is recommended.
As mentioned, this resource also incorporates often overlooked essential Responder populations including: wildland firefighters, disaster workers, corrections, air medical, emergency department staff, ski patrol, and coroner’s personnel.
Ironically, in this time of great demand for emergency response services, responders are paying a high personal price for serving their communities. It is our hope that through tools like this, we can better support those who support us. If you have a responder or health care worker in your life, thank them for what they do and pass this information on to them.
Rhonda Kelly served as an EMT, firefighter/paramedic and nurse for more than 20 years before founding ResponderStrong. She leads the All Clear Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the well-being of emergency responders, front-line medical workers and their families.