Some days John McCormack feels like he can take on the world. But then he hears a baby cry or a siren wail, “and my heart starts pounding, and I experience a gut-wrenching feeling,” he said.

John is a paramedic, and he battles the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) brought on by his job.

John is one of many first responders who provide critical services to communities in the aftermath of disasters, both natural and manmade. 

First responders never know what a day on the job is going to look like. Their work can mean close encounters with danger, chaos, and tragedy on a daily basis.

The emotional and physical needs of those first responders are often forgotten during crisis. They may not consider their own needs, or they may simply be too occupied with other responsibilities to handle personal or family needs. 


But helpers need help, encouragement, and assistance, too.

When the Helpers Need Help

First responders provide critical services to communities in the aftermath of disasters, both natural and manmade. Their work can be dangerous, physically demanding, personally draining, and heart-breaking, often involving long hours and difficult circumstances. Their exposure to traumatic events can lead to a range of health and mental health consequences, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), compassion fatigue, and burnout.

Studies have found that 75% of rescue workers have mild symptoms of psychological trauma following a disaster. Several factors, including longer periods of deployment, inexperience, close contact with corpses, and longer shifts, are associated with greater mental health challenges.

No matter what the title or assignment, the mission of these professionals is to respond to disasters and crises that threaten the safety and welfare of others. First responders go to the scene exposing themselves to personal and psychological traumas to care for the health and safety of others.

For first responders, if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to care for others. To continue to do the job you love or what you have been called to do, you have to take care of yourself first. 

It’s the age old saying: put your mask on first then help others to put their mask on. 

Here Are 5 Steps For Emotional First Aid For First Responders

1. Be Prepared for the Unknown

Crisis and disaster relief include anything from search and rescue operations to supply distribution or treating injuries. Understanding that situations can rapidly change at a moment’s notice and without warning is part of being ready and will have a positive effect on first responder mental health.


2. Consistently Assess Emotional Health

writing emotional self care

It’s easy to put yourself on the back burner when working in situations where others are experiencing horrific trauma. Still, a lack of awareness of your mental and emotional health can lead to a downward spiral. Stress reactions to intense situations include:

  • Difficulties sleeping
  • Substance abuse
  • Numbing
  • Irritability or anger
  • Confusion
  • Physical reactions, such as stomachaches and headaches
  • Depression or anxiety symptoms

If you begin experiencing any of these symptoms, reach out to your team, your leader, your chaplain, or your family and let them know you need support.

A crucial time to access your mental and emotional well-being is after emergency relief work. 

Stress can take time to manifest, and it’s important to be aware in the days and weeks after working in disaster relief. Many organizations institute exit exams that are designed to help first responders decompress after an emergency crisis, as well as encourage and distribute information about counseling options.


3. Be Aware of Your Organization’s Policies

Most agencies and organizations are aware of the importance of first responder emotional and mental health and have guidelines and policies in place to address it, such as:

  • Mandated time off
  • Shift limits
  • Task rotation to limit burnout in high-stress situations
  • Employing enough providers
  • Encouraging peer partners


4. Utilize Self-Care Strategies

writing emotional self care

Take time to focus on personal needs, such as making sure you are eating enough, exercising, and taking time to relax. Know your limitations and step away when it’s warranted. Focus on putting stress away and immersing yourself in activities you enjoy, such as spending time with friends or family.

Click here to learn more about self-care strategies for emotional first aid

5. Be Aware of Actions That Increase Stress

While working in emergency relief situations, it’s easy to slip into habits that can lead to decreased mental health, such as:

  • Extending periods of working alone
  • Taking limited breaks
  • Excessive use of food or substance as a crutch

Non-helpful self-talk, such as, “It would be selfish to take a break,” and “The needs of survivors are more important than the needs of helpers.”

Responding to disasters can be both rewarding and stressful. Knowing that you have stress and coping with it as you respond will help you stay well, and this will allow you to keep helping those who are affected. 

Caring for yourself while helping others does not make you selfish or needy.  The care that helpers provide others can only be as good as the care they provide themselves.

If you are a first responder or know someone who is, consider taking the CARES course so you can be empowered and equipped with the tools necessary to recognize and respond to a crisis in a healthy way.

Click Here to Start Your CARES Training Today


PTSD: How Working as a Paramedic Left Me With a Mental Health Emergency of My Own