The new tech that supports emergency workers’ mental health
As an online mental health service for first responders is launched in Australia, backed by Prince Harry, how can technology help support the mental health of frontline workers?
Of the thousands of people there, only one knew exactly what was about to happen. Adrenaline hit him as he ran towards the screams. He stopped. Converted. And in that split second, he saw the future, the reality he had created for himself in his mind the night before: the sharp inhalation; the flash of yellow; jump as instinct took over.
Club! The ball cracked against the back of the net. Wayne Rooney, 25, stepped to the corner to celebrate. The forward scored a record 253 goals for Manchester United, but is The majestic aerial kick against Manchester City is often described as his best.
From a young age, Rooney had used visualization techniques to imagine himself performing well and scoring goals. Now that same psychological strategy is part of a mental fitness toolkit called Peak Fortem, which has been designed to provide Australian first responders with practical ways to improve their well-being.
The service is a collaboration between non-profit organizations brave, Australia, which supports emergency services workers and their families, and Peak State, a UK social enterprise backed by Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex. Their goal is to lessen the impact of the high-pressure roles of first responders by building their mental resilience.
“While serving in the military, I saw firsthand how important it is to train the mind as a muscle, not only to endure challenges and stresses, but also to excel, grow and develop resilience in all aspects of life,” says the prince. Harry. “With Peak Fortem, we are witnessing the next step in a global movement toward mental fitness.”
The project has also been described as “tremendous” by Scott Morrison, Prime Minister of Australia.
It comes highly recommended then. But can technology solutions ever compete with traditional consulting, for example?
Research suggests that about 10 percent of emergency services workers develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Credit: Fire and Rescue NSW
Investigation by the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry revealed that around 10 percent of emergency services workers develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For firefighters dealing with wildfires, the figure rises to 15 percent. However, a third of front-line staff who said they suffered “severe” psychological distress had not had access to any mental health care in the past month. Free and easily accessible Peak Fortem could be a way to change that.
The toolkit uses 20 cognitive-behavioral techniques and emotional regulation strategies that have been shown to improve mental well-being. These include creativity as a form of mindfulness, grassroots techniques, and helping workers recognize their strengths.
“For too long, many people have only viewed mental health as something to acknowledge when they are in trouble or wrong,” said David Wiseman, co-founder of Peak State. Together with Nathan Jones, Wiseman developed the popular UK mental fitness site HeadFIT which was released in early 2020. “We hope to show that proactively developing and maintaining mental fitness helps people thrive,” he adds.
Mental maintenance, rather than repair
One of the first responders who is already using the techniques is Kylie Rigg, an inspector for the Queensland Police Service’s patrol group. As a trained negotiator, Rigg has had to deal with siege situations, suicidal members of the public and civil unrest between gun groups. “A good level of mental fitness helps us perform better,” he says.
Rigg uses positive self-talk to stay psychologically sharp. Write down any thoughts you have that seem useless or unproductive, and then reframe them in a more constructive way. “[It’s] to think about previous situations in which I have approached something similar and have had a good result and know that I can really do it again, “he adds.
“A good level of mental fitness ultimately helps us perform better,” says Kylie Rigg of the Queensland Police Service. Credit: Fire and Rescue NSW
The toolkit bridges the gap between two of the most common solutions for frontline workers: pre-incident training and post-incident support. Fortem Australia complements the skills first responders learn on the website with professional clinical care, psychological support and group activities that enhance mental well-being.
The UK Ministry of Defense (MOD) is among the other organizations that are shifting their approach from reactive mental health care to a more proactive approach. Since April, training in mental health will be mandatory for all members of the armed forces. In addition to a 24-hour helpline for service personnel and their families, each service will have its own mental health and resilience training.
“The mental fitness of our service personnel is as important as their physical fitness,” a MOD spokesperson told Positive News.
But are these new strategies strong enough? And will they work for frontline workers in the future? Investigation by the Institute for Labor Studies and Cranfield University, which explored the use of mindfulness in the military, suggests that approaches will need to be tailored to each sector.
Covid-19 has forced NHS England to analyze the mental health services it provides to staff. Image: Luke Jones
“High-performing military personnel are less likely to engage with meditation alone, due to its self-help connotations,” the report concluded. He also suggested that the military population might be more vulnerable to discovering latent trauma through individual meditation sessions.
Covid-19 has also forced NHS England to analyze the mental health services it provides to staff. An estimated 40 percent of NHS staff now show probable PTSD symptoms due to the pandemic. In response, £ 15 million has been invested in services such as resilience centers, offering localized mental health counseling and support for staff, as well as new small-scale solutions.
The mental fitness of our service personnel is as important as their physical fitness.
One such example is the Supporting Our Staff program at Northampton General Hospitals NHS Trust. The peer-delivered solution teaches non-clinical staff to detect the first signs of PTSD. Those at risk are then expedited for professional support, with a psychologist deployed on site to improve flexibility. Informal feedback on the plan has been overwhelmingly positive. A formal evaluation is now underway to see if it should be retained and expanded.
Whatever the outcome, our mental health solutions are changing rapidly. Many in the sector are calling for a new coherent and more integrated approach, and services like Peak Fortem could be part of that.
Lead Image: Fire and Rescue NSW