The Frontline for Your Frontline: The Importance of Peer Support Teams During COVID-19

by Katherine Kuhlman, PsyD

It’s no secret that the Coronavirus pandemic has had an impact on first responders. Many agencies are becoming short-staffed due to responders contracting or being exposed to the virus, and families of responders are worrying and their loved ones venture to the front lines daily, putting themselves at risk. Responders have admitted to fears of contracting the virus, which has symptoms all over the board. Many police and sheriff agencies have had to make a number of adjustments, whether it be limiting response to traffic violations or issuing citations and warnings instead of making arrests for some charges. Individuals in specialized assignments are finding themselves on patrol for the first time in years. Fire and EMS, along with some law enforcement, have seen new policies around personal protective equipment (PPE) as well.  Some responders have no idea what their assigned task or role will be until their shift starts. Both the psychological and administrative impacts can have an effect on mental health and morale. The stress is real.

We know how stress can affect responders. It can manifest cognitively, through careless mistakes on reports, confusion, is forgetfulness. It can manifest physiologically, through headaches or GI problems. Sometimes stress comes through behaviorally, through changes in sleep cycle. Much of the time, stress manifests emotionally, through irritability, social withdrawal, anger, depression, or anxiety.  The jobs of first responders were already stressful, with often thankless jobs, shiftwork, large caseloads, trauma, and more. Add on a global pandemic and everything is amplified.

Whenever I give a training about stress or PTSD to first responders, I first ask about all the things that stress folks out. Then I ask what they do to manage their stress. The audience always gives a number of different responses, but the two I can always count on hearing are: alcohol and working out. The former response is always a joke (or I tell them, it better be!). The latter response is what I want to hear. Working out, especially cardiovascular activity is known to reduce levels of cortisol in the body, a stress-causing chemical. Then, I ask the group, “when you start to really get stressed, what’s the first thing to go?” Usually they respond, in unison, “working out.” Why do we do this? Why, when things get bad, do we do away with the things that are actually best for us?

I could get into the science behind adrenaline, cortisol, stress, crisis, and decision-making, but instead I’ll be your pre-frontal cortex for you (that’s the part of the brain that’s responsible for executive functions, like logical decision-making :P). Use. Your. Resources. Your peer support teams, your chaplains, your department psychologists or mental health clinicians.

To command staff reading this: Your agency’s foundation is its frontline. Your frontline is only as well as your people are.  They would lay down their life for you. Take care of them. In this time of stress and reduced resources, don’t take away the things you’ve built up to help them. I know that staffing, budgets, and time are tight, but you will no longer be able to fulfill your department’s purpose if you have staff that aren’t present physically or emotionally. Numerous studies cite the benefits of robust peer support, chaplaincy, and mental health programs, including improved work performance, less disciplinary action, improvement in overall morale, and reduction in suicide. During a time of crisis, these are programs that should be amplified and modeled, never removed. Your frontline needs this frontline.

Dr. Kuhlman is a Police and Public Safety Psychologist in Scottsdale, Arizona. She can be reached at www.drkuhlman.com or [email protected] .

Editor’s Note: Dr. Kuhlman is a member of the NCPCV Executive Board.