Supporting the mental health needs of firefighters and first responders

Communities rely on the strength and bravery of firefighters to help in crisis situations — an oftentimes mentally draining and extremely stressful task. However, finding resources and the support needed to care for their mental health can be difficult to access, especially in rural areas.

Without this crucial support, substance use disorders and suicide rates can increase. In fact, more firefighters die from suicide each year than in the line of duty.

In New Mexico, which already has the fourth highest rate of suicide in the country, and 60% of the state’s population living in rural communities, the stressors can be more pronounced.

“We are exposed to people having their worst day on a day-to-day basis,” said Paul Bearce, a retired fire chief and an instructor with the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance. “That exposure to traumatic incidents builds up.”

To help address this critical issue, UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of New Mexico has provided $60,000 for a curriculum to be developed with the New Mexico Suicide Prevention Coalition to help rural firefighters and EMS providers with their mental health. 

The training, called The Fire that Burns Within, is evidence-based and culturally competent, and meant to be completed in four modules for county fire departments and small volunteer organizations.

The training includes:

  • Discussion about changing the culture of fire departments to reduce stigma around mental health
  • Presentations by mental health providers about the traumas that firefighters can face

The training is offered for free, which Paul notes is a boon for smaller departments with limited training budgets.

The curriculum stresses the unique challenges that firefighters face. The training helps increase resiliency and gives firefighters the tools to overcome stigma about mental health and moreover, develop peer support skills – to help people in the firefighter and EMS community spot trouble signs if someone is struggling.

“This program equips first responders across New Mexico with the tools and training to address their mental health,” said Drew Peterson, CEO, UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of New Mexico. “Creating open spaces to discuss and learn about our mental health is an important step in reducing stigma.”

Rural agencies must be resourceful to provide for their staff due to the lack of trained providers in the area who have an intimate knowledge of the challenges facing first responders.

Feedback was extremely positive for the trainings that have already taken place. To date, the organization has trained over 150 first responders, including firefighters, EMS personnel, emergency dispatchers, emergency management personnel, and police officers.

One participant noted, “I like the fact of being proactive instead of reactive is key to ‘saving those who save others.’”

Paul said the training reflects an evolution of the field, as providers, fire chiefs and mental health providers learn more about the unique needs of firefighters. This training is one way that firefighters can get the tools to get the help they need — and to support each other — so they can continue their crucial role of serving our communities. 

Sign up to get the latest news from the UnitedHealthcare Newsroom