First responders face an increased risk of experiencing some mental health and substance use issues and conditions. Fear of being seen as weak or not up to the job of a responder keeps many from seeking help. Responders can build their resilience by increasing awareness about risk factors and warning signs, talking with each other, and using healthy coping strategies.
Visit the Tips for Preparing to Deploy web page for information on relevant concepts and associated tools to assist organizations in preparing responders for disaster behavioral health deployment.
Stress Management for Responders
Responders are exposed to demanding and tense situations on a regular basis, with some of the most intense situations during and after disasters. Every disaster is different. Are many people affected? Is there a massive amount of destruction? Have many people died? Is the working environment stable? Are there enough resources to properly assist and care for the survivors? Are you or your family personally affected? All these questions and more play a role in the stress levels of responders.
Below are possible signs of stress, as well as tips that may be helpful to manage stress before, during, and after a disaster.
Signs of Stress
- Bodily sensations and physical effects such as rapid heart rate, headaches, nausea, inability to relax when off duty, trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
- Strong negative feelings
- Difficulty thinking clearly
- Problematic or risky behaviors
- Social conflicts
Stress Management Tips
- Know your role during a disaster.
- Develop a self-care plan prior to deployment, and use it during deployment.
- Practice stress management during all phases of the disaster response effort.
- Involve loved ones in your preparation and planning activities.
- Make sure you have an individual and family preparedness plan to cover loved ones if the disaster is in your community.
For more information on how to manage the stress of deployment to a disaster, please see the SAMHSA Disaster Technical Assistance Center (DTAC’s) A Guide to Managing Stress for Disaster Responders and First Responders. For more about peer support programs for responders, visit the Responder Peer Support web page.
SAMHSA DTAC Online Trainings
This 1-hour online training course was developed to help first responders cope with the stressors involved in the opioid crisis. The course is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Pre-hospital Continuing Education (CAPCE), which reviews and approves trainings for continuing education credit for emergency medical services (EMS) professionals.
Creating Safe Scenes
This 1.5-hour online course, also accredited by CAPCE, helps first responders use safe, positive approaches to assist individuals in crises related to mental illness or substance use disorders.
Shield of Resilience
This 1-hour online course provides law enforcement officers with a foundational skill set to better understand and address stressors that are unique to law enforcement.
Service to Self
Specifically for fire and EMS personnel, this hour-long online course (CAPCE-accredited) covers occupational stressors, mental health and substance use issues that are more common among fire and EMS personnel, individual and organizational resilience, and stress management.
SAMHSA DTAC Publications for First Responders
These print materials may help responders prepare for a disaster response and recover after one has ended. Several of the items are available in languages other than English.
- Tips for Healthcare Professionals: Coping with Stress and Compassion Fatigue (Spanish)
- Tips for Health Care Practitioners and Responders: Helping Survivors Cope With Grief After a Disaster or Traumatic Event
- Helping Staff Manage Stress When Returning to Work: Tips for Supervisors of Disaster Responders (Spanish)
- Tips for Disaster Responders: Returning to Work (Spanish)
- Tips for Disaster Responders: Understanding Compassion Fatigue (Spanish)
Other Trainings and Resources
The SAMHSA guide Connecting Communities to Substance Use Services: Practical Tools for First Responders explores the role of first responders in connecting the communities they serve with substance use services and supports, providing first responders with approaches and strategies for promoting and collaborating with local services and partners to ensure community-wide comprehensive care.
Are you interested in more trainings and resources on a specific aspect of disaster behavioral health? The Online Disaster Behavioral Health Training collection, part of the SAMHSA Disaster Behavioral Health Information Series, highlights free online trainings on topics including crisis intervention and Psychological First Aid. Some of these trainings are available for continuing education credit.