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    First Responder Mental Health: It’s Not All In The Mind

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    IN THE MIND web2

    Our police, paramedics, firefighters and rescue personnel help keep our communities safe. However, the general public does not view this population group as vulnerable. While in the mental health field, doctors, psychologists and social workers are seeing a very different picture with alarming suicide rates and a high incidence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Emergency services responders are trained to look after others, but not themselves. It’s a global issue, one that is being increasingly brought to light by the courage of those who suffer and their supporters speaking out.

    With many helping professionals working from a traditional medical model, mental health issues among first responders tend to be identified primarily as a response to attending traumatic incidents. Treatment is inclined to be focused on therapies such as CBT, DBT, EMDR and mindfulness. These approaches focus on individual change and evidence certainly suggests that these types of treatments are invaluable in terms of strengthening the individual’s coping and resilience skills.

    However, we must be mindful how the systems in which the individual functions will also have an impact on their mental health. When working with emergency services responders and their families, it is vital that therapists and health promotion workers understand ALL the factors which impact wellbeing, not just in response to mental health issues but also in developing prevention strategies.

    So, what are some of these “other” factors, or determinants warranting attention when dealing with emergency services wellbeing?

    1) Emergency services culture – historically emergency services culture has fostered the ‘toughen up’ attitude, deeming the admission of mental health issues as a ‘weakness’ . Admitting this weakness not only reflects on the individual but also on the ‘brotherhood’ which values pride and strength.

    2) Organisational culture- whilst changes are being made in some organisations, there are ingrained fears (real or perceived) from responders that any admission of mental health issues will either deem them unfit for work, or will stop them from getting promoted.

    3) Workplace Stigma– there are real and perceived fears of work colleagues judging a responder as ‘weak’, particularly if a number of them have been to the same call outs, but only one speaks out about struggling. A lack of understanding of stress responses and the individuality of conditions such as depression, anxiety and PTSD leads to judgement and alienation of the individual affected, rather than what is needed – support.

    4) Societal Expectations – Let’s face it, we all grew up thinking of police, firefighters and paramedics as heroes. They’re the people who protect us, and save our lives! We’ve been taught to listen to their instructions, trust their judgement in crisis and look to them for guidance when in danger. Somehow it doesn’t make sense to acknowledge that these ’heroes’ are human just like us!

    5) Lifestyle changes Whether the responder is full time, part time or a volunteer, from the moment of recruitment personal and family lifestyle require changes. Inconvenient rosters, critical incidents, unexpected call outs and changes in household roles and routines are just some of the challenges faced by emergency services responders and their families.

    6) Family Support– families of first responders have unique stresses and unique expectations. But it’s difficult to discuss these stresses and expectations outside emergency services circles. Firstly there is this feeling that the general public won’t understand. More significantly, divulging that their responder family member is suffering in some way feels like they’re breaching an unwritten ‘confidentiality code’ such as don’t embarrass the organisation, the crew or the individual by speaking about individual or family mental health issues. What happens on the job stays on the job which extends to family members. There is also the old belief that telling your family about any incidents affecting you will adversely impact that family member’s mental health. Organisational confidentiality regulations support that notion – yet talking about and processing traumatic incidents is critical in any recovery process.

    7) Relevant Social Support. When responders experience work related stress, they have a number of barriers to disclosing struggles to friends who are not part of the emergency services culture. One barrier is confidentiality – they are not supposed to discuss the details of their work with anyone from the general public. Secondly, there is the notion (real or perceived) that those who haven’t done the job could not possibly understand what they’ve experienced. Thirdly, there is the reluctance to ‘burden’ civilians with the graphic details of incidents for fear they may end up suffering vicariously as a result of the disclosures.

    What advice can those in the helping professions take from this?

    If you treat an emergency services person with depression, anxiety or PTSD without understanding the context in which their illness or injury occurred, then you are not only doing your client a disservice, but you could in fact be damaging their potential for an effective recovery. It is vital that you have a genuine understanding of emergency services culture both today and historically.

    Secondly, should we as professionals not be advocating on behalf of this group? In Australia alone there are over 400,000 paid, part time and volunteer emergency services responders – add their family members and that’s a huge population group affected by unique stresses! To advocate effectively, helping professionals need to understand the systems their lives function in, and systems which impact on wellbeing and recovery.

    Thirdly, there is a strong need to focus on prevention – on a global level the media are telling us there is a “mental health crisis among emergency services workers.” We’ve seen these sorts of reports for years. What is actually happening to prevent mental health issues among emergency services responders? What sorts of consultations are happening? Who is invited to these consultations? Who is the information from these consultations being disseminated to? And what are the results of these consultations “on the frontline”?

    No matter what field of practice you are in, I urge you to educate yourself on ALL the factors impacting the mental health of those who keep us, our families and our communities safe.

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    Veronique Moseley is a Social Work Helper Contributor. In Australia, she has spent the last 20 years working in the areas of community development, stress management, adult education and facilitating creative partnerships. With a Bachelor of Social Work (UNSW) and experience in photojournalism and marketing, Veronique is passionate about highlighting the value of creativity, innovation and promotional skills in all areas of social work practice. She is co-founder of Behind The Seen, a preventative program for Australian emergency services personnel to help them and their families deal with the unique stresses they face.

    Health

    Study Shows Immune Cells Against Covid-19 Stay High in Number Six Months After Vaccination

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    A recent study by Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers provides evidence that CD4+ T lymphocytes — immune system cells also known as helper T cells — produced by people who received either of the two available messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines for COVID-19 persist six months after vaccination at only slightly reduced levels from two weeks after vaccination and are at significantly higher levels than for those who are unvaccinated.

    The researchers also found that the T cells they studied recognize and help protect against the delta variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the delta variant — currently the predominant strain of SARS-CoV-2 in the United States — causes more infections and spreads faster than earlier forms of the virus.

    The study findings were first reported online Oct. 25, 2021, in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.

    “Previous research has suggested that humoral immune response — where the immune system circulates virus-neutralizing antibodies — can drop off at six months after vaccination, whereas our study indicates that cellular immunity — where the immune system directly attacks infected cells — remains strong,” says study senior author Joel Blankson, M.D., Ph.D., professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “The persistence of these vaccine-elicited T cells, along with the fact that they’re active against the delta variant, has important implications for guiding COVID vaccine development and determining the need for COVID boosters in the future.”

    To reach these findings, Blankson and his colleagues obtained blood from 15 study participants (10 men and five women) at three times: prior to vaccination, between seven and14 days after their second Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccine dose, and six months after vaccination. The median age of the participants was 41 and none had evidence of prior SARS-CoV-2 infection.

    CD4+ T lymphocytes get their nickname of helper T cells because they assist another type of immune system cell, the B lymphocyte (B cell), to respond to surface proteins — antigens — on viruses such as SARS-CoV-2. Activated by the CD4+ T cells, immature B cells become either plasma cells that produce antibodies to mark infected cells for disposal from the body or memory cells that “remember” the antigen’s biochemical structure for a faster response to future infections. Therefore, a CD4+ T cell response can serve as a measure of how well the immune system responds to a vaccine and yields humoral immunity.

    In their study, Blankson and colleagues found that the number of helper T cells recognizing SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins was extremely low prior to vaccination — with a median of 2.7 spot-forming units (SFUs, the level of which is a measure of T cell frequency) per million peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs, identified as any blood cell with a round nucleus, including lymphocytes). Between 7 and 14 days after vaccination, the T cell frequency rose to a median of 237 SFUs per million PBMCs. At six months after vaccination, the level dropped slightly to a median of 122 SFUs per million PBMCs — a T cell frequency still significantly higher than before vaccination.

    The researchers also looked six months after vaccination at the ability of CD4+ T cells to recognize spike proteins atop the SARS-CoV-2 delta variant. They discovered the number of T cells recognizing the delta variant spike protein was not significantly different from that of T cells attuned to the original virus strain’s protein.

    Although the study was limited because of the small number of participants, Blankson feels it pinpoints areas that merit further research.

    “The robust expansion of T cells in response to stimulation with spike proteins is certainly indicated, supporting the need for more study to show booster shots do successfully increase the frequency of SARS-CoV-2-specific T cells circulating in the blood,” says Blankson. “The added bonus is finding that this response also is likely strong for the delta variant.”

    Along with Blankson, the members of the study team from Johns Hopkins Medicine are study lead author Bezawit Woldemeskel and Caroline Garliss.

    This study was supported by the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Vaccine-related Research Fund.

    The authors do not have financial or conflict of interest disclosures. 

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    Health

    Poverty, Racism and the Public Health Crisis in America

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    Although extreme poverty in the United States is low by global standards, the U.S. has the worst index of health and social problems as a function of income inequality. In a newly published article, Bettina Beech, clinical professor of population health in the Department of Health Systems and Population Health Sciences at the University of Houston College of Medicine and chief population health officer at UH, examines poverty and racism as factors influencing health.

    “A common narrative for the relatively high prevalence of poverty among marginalized minority communities is predicated on racist notions of racial inferiority and frequent denial of the structural forms of racism and classism that have contributed to public health crises in the United States and across the globe,” Beech reports in Frontiers in Public Health. “Racism contributes to and perpetuates the economic and financial inequality that diminishes prospects for population health improvement among marginalized racial and ethnic groups. The U.S. has one of the highest rates of poverty in the developed world, but despite its collective wealth, the burden falls disproportionately on communities of color.” The goal of population health is to achieve health equity, so that every person can reach their full potential.

    Though overall wealth has risen in recent years, growth in economic and financial resources has not been equally distributed. Black families in the U.S. have about one-twentieth the wealth of their white peers on average. For every dollar of wealth in white families, the corresponding wealth in Black households is five cents.

    “Wealth inequality is not a function of work ethic or work hour difference between groups. Rather, the widening gap between the affluent and the poor can be linked to unjust policies and practices that favor the wealthy,” said Beech. “The impact of this form of inequality on health has come into sharp focus during the COVID-19 pandemic as the economically disadvantaged were more likely to get infected with SARS CoV-2 and die.”

    A Very Old Problem 

    In the mid-1800’s, Dr. James McCune Smith wrote one of the earliest descriptions of racism as the cause of health inequities and ultimately health disparities in America. He explained the health of a person “was not primarily a consequence of their innate constitution, but instead reflected their intrinsic membership in groups created by a race structured society.”

    Over 100 years later, the Heckler Report, the first government-sanctioned assessment of racial health disparities, was published. It noted mortality inequity was linked to six leading causes of preventable excess deaths for the Black compared to the white population (cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, infant mortality, chemical dependency and homicide/unintentional injury).

    It and other reports led to a more robust focus on population health over the last few decades that has included a renewed interest in the impact of racism and social factors, such as poverty, on clinical outcomes.

    The Myth of Meritocracy

    Beech contends that structural racism harms marginalized populations at the expense of affording greater resources, opportunities and other privileges to the dominant white society.

    “Public discourse has been largely shaped by a narrative of meritocracy which is laced with ideals of opportunity without any consideration of the realities of racism and race-based inequities in structures and systems that have locked individuals, families and communities into poverty-stricken lives for generations,” she said. “Coupled with a lack of a national health program this condemns oppressed populations such as Black and Hispanic Americans, American Indians, and disproportionately non-English speaking immigrants and refugees to remain in poverty and suffer from suboptimal health.”

    Keys to Improvement

    The World Health Organization identified three keys to improving health at a global level that each reinforces the impact of socioeconomic factors: (1) improve the conditions of daily life; (2) tackle the inequitable distribution of power, money and resources; and (3) develop a workforce trained in and public awareness of the social determinants of health.

    The report’s findings highlight the need to implement health policies to increase access to care for lower-income individuals and highlight the need to ensure such policies and associated programs are reaching those in need.

    “Health care providers can directly address many of the factors crucial for closing the health disparities gap by recognizing and trying to mitigate the race-based implicit biases many physicians carry, as well as leveraging their privilege to address the elements of institutionalized racism entrenched within the fabric of our society, starting with social injustice and human indifference,” said Beech.

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    Culture

    What Do You Know About Disability Cultural Competence?

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    Recently, I had the opportunity to give a webinar on disability cultural competence to social service workers, but was met with many blank stares. As a disabled social worker myself, I often notice that the disability community is not recognized as a cultural group. Disability is also not considered as a social identity in diversity considerations, despite the ways the community feels about it. Frankly, our field has a long way to go when it comes to developing disability cultural competence. Let’s see if we can change that.

    Why the We Need to Prioritize the Disability Community

    You may be asking yourself, why all the focus on disability? Well, the disability community comprises 26 percent of the adult U.S. population – that’s one in four Americans according to the Centers for Disease Control. Among children under the age of 18, estimates suggest that 4.3 percent of the population is disabled according to the U.S. Census from 2019. This means that social services workers are interacting with the disability community all over! It’s also important to note that disability transcends race, ethnicity, gender and other social identities, as seen in the graphic below (courtesy of Courtney-Long, Romano, Carroll, et al., 2017). So we need to remember to be intersectional in our  practice – these are not siloed communities.

    Courtesy of Courtney-Long, Romano, Carroll, et al., 2017

    Importance of Disability Identity

    I’d like to transition now to talking about the importance of having a disability identity. Some people identify as disabled from a cultural perspective. Some people are not even aware that this is an option and you can open their eyes to the world of disability as a resource for them. In other words, for some, this is a missed opportunity to connect to a supportive network. For others, it’s a choice not to identify as disabled either due to stigma, internalized ableism or other beliefs. The idea is that developing a strong disability identity is super helpful with your long-term well-being. And in order to do this, you have to both connect with the disability community and with disability culture. So what is that?

    What is Disability Culture?

     

    In short, disability culture is the “sum total of behaviors, beliefs, ways of living, & material artifacts that are unique to persons affected by disability.” It’s essential for social service workers to be tuned in to disability culture so they can leverage it to connect with their clients. And let’s be clear, disability culture does NOT consist of disability service programs. Where we really see disability culture come alive is on social media sites, such as Twitter and Instagram. You can follow some of the major disability culture hashtags to see the dialogues and debates that are hot in our community right now, such as: #DisabilityTwitter; #DisabilityVisability; #DisabilityAwareness; #IdentityFirst; #DisabilityLife; #Spoonie,#SpoonieLife, and more.

    You may notice that the last two hashtags included the word “spoonie.” This derives from “spoon theory,” which is an actual theory based on a metaphor about how much mental and physical energy a person has to accomplish their activities of daily living (ADLs) and instrumental activities of daily living (IADLs). The disability community talks about how many “spoons” they have as a unit of measurement of energy – and sometimes refers to themselves as spoonies. Please note that in teaching you this, I am helping you to develop your disability cultural competence.

    How Build Disability Cultural Competence

    Other ways to build up your disability cultural competence are to check out the Disability Visibility Project, which tells the stories of diverse members of the community in wonderful ways. And there are a range of organizations, such as Sins Invalid, which founded the disability justice movement. You can also read the 10 principles of that movement in this short document. This will help you to tune in to the disability pride movement. We have a pride month and a pride flag too, it happens in July.

    When it comes to engaging in disability competent practice, we need to develop knowledge about disability culture and disability history. We can also consider taking the following steps to round out this competence:

    First, we need to examine our own attitudes about disability and engage in reflective practice around that. You can consider your own implicit bias about the disability community through Harvard University’s Project Implicit test about ableism, or through social worker Vilissa Thompson’s guide to checking your own ableism.

    Second, developing disability cultural competence over time also includes a careful look at the terminology we are using and respecting disabled people’s choice of identity-first language in many cases. You can read more about that here and throughout that site. The Harvard Business Review also has a thoughtful essay on why you need to stop using particular words and phrases. It’s a great resource and helpful read for many.

    Third, we also need to think respectfully about disability etiquette and how ideas play out in different parts of the disability community. One should presume competence about us – all of us! We ask that you respect our bodily autonomy, speak to the person and not their companion/interpreter, ask before you help, be sensitive about physical contact/equipment contact, don’t make assumptions about capacity, listen to us, don’t assume you know better and if you are in doubt about what to do, ask! Writer Andrew Purlang sums up his disability etiquette request as follows:

    • Don’t be afraid to notice, mention, or ask about a person’s disability when it’s relevant — but don’t go out of your way!
    • Offer to help, but make sure to listen to their response, respect their answer, & follow their directions
    • Don’t tell a disabled person about how they should think about or talk about their own disability
    • Don’t give unsolicited medical, emotional, or practical advice
    • Don’t make a disabled person responsible for managing your feelings about their disability, or for your education on disability issues
    • If you make a mistake, just say you’re sorry and move on. Don’t try to argue that you were right all along.

    Now What?

    Taken together, these steps, learning disability culture, and examining our own attitudes about disability, go a long way towards the development of disability cultural competence. But none of it will do any good if we are not fighting for disability access and disability inclusion, which are central issues for the disability community. Many people think that issues of access were solved by the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. But the implementation of that law is fraught and embattled, and there is lots of work to be done on the access front. Take a look at these simple guides below. They will go a long way in helping to engage the disability community and making us feel welcome! Above all, remember our movement’s rallying cry, “nothing about us, without us!”

    Website Accessibility

    Accessible Social Media Guide

    Meeting Accessibility

    Webinar Accessibility

    Public Event Accessibility

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