It may be rare for a social work student to reflect on an assignment as something inspirational rather than a stressful experience with a deadline, but at the end of 3rd year of my social work degree, one assignment was a challenge filled with hope. The assignment allowed me to contribute to a program that will give insight to other helping professionals about the mental health of first responders: police, firefighters, paramedics and others who respond to emergencies on the frontline.
The University of Newcastle has a particularly effective way of integrating workplace experience based learning with academic learning throughout the degree. The program options offered in third year which allow students to develop a program for a real agency was the most useful for me. To know your work might form a foundation for a real program in the community was a great honour and challenge to work on.
In the beginning, I was unsure of what to expect from the program development project. I was apprehensive about working with a professional capacity with a real agency, but I was excited also to learn more and try something new. There were diverse programs offered- from gardening programs to developing group projects designed for children and developing a program for professionals working with first responders.
The university gave us a chance to preference our interests and I was fortunate enough, with some other amazing women to be selected for the first responders team. The aim of our project was to put together a draft training package for helping professionals to enhance understanding of first responder mental health.
This topic drew my interest as it was beyond my scope of knowledge and I have a keen interest in mental health, so it was intriguing to me on both a personal and professional level. On starting, I very quickly became aware that I had actually put very little thought into the work first responders do in our communities to keep us all safer.
I learned just how complex the actual work of first responders can be, I learned the challenges that first responders face as a consequence of their work, the most traumatic of which is often invisible to the communities that they protect. I learned how repetitive exposure to trauma can complicate all aspects of first responder’s lives if they don’t or can’t seek or obtain support. I learned how much awareness is lacking within the multiple levels of the community, which is needed to enact change for first responders and their families.
Also, I learned the difficulties that can be faced by first responders and their families when attempting to access help. Whilst organisational supports are in place for some of the services, the stigma, shame and potential for the loss of their profession is very real. I heard stories about those medically discharged dealing with the grief and loss of their profession and identity.
My part in the group was to examine the supports already in place for first responders. I was concerned at the limited avenues for assistance and the extent of the difficulties for first responders to seek help. Besides limited services, stigma and organisational culture are barriers to effective help seeking. I found attempting to identify potential services to be frustrating, especially when looking for options within communities rather than those which are employer organisation based. My mind quickly went to how this frustration might feel for someone who was attempting the same whilst being unwell.
Gaining insight and recognition into the role first responders play, the impacts on their mental health, their relationships and all aspects of their lives and the flow on effect to their wider social ecology, I realised just how large the scale of first responder post-traumatic stress and other mental health consequences have on our community overall.
The hardest part of this learning experience was seeing the end of the project. The topic is so significant, it is hard to not to explore the topic further. To me, this feels like a core social work and social justice issue, yet one which is invisible much of the time. My learning from this project has given me a totally new perspective. I have a renewed respect and a much deeper understanding of the issues faced by police, firefighters, paramedics and all others who work on the frontline in emergencies.
I know I’ve only scratched the surface of the knowledge it takes to work with first responders and enact positive change in their lives. I hope more research is completed and potentially more opportunities for training and professional development come up for social workers, whether it be integrated into core teaching within university programs or externally in workplaces.
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