As we strive towards smashing the mental health stigma and bringing awareness to departments, we need to talk about resiliency versus coping. Often when speaking with department chiefs, our coaches and staff have noticed that they’re looking for coping strategies. This is all well and good, but coping strategies aren’t our first line of defense.
Don Pemberton mentions in his Spotlight from this past July that it’s like “the difference between a smoke detector and a sprinkler system.” The smoke detector notices the early fires while the sprinkler system doesn’t trigger until the fire is already raging. So we’re dealing with leaders who think they only need better sprinkler systems, but really they need smoke detectors.
Coping After Trauma
More often than not, department leaders are seeing staff coping after trauma. Whether or not something was in place to support their first responders, the trauma happens and then there’s a reaction to help them cope… maybe. The departments who are trying to do the right thing are checking in and allowing some leave – sadly this is not all, or even the majority – but isn’t this waiting to shut the barn door after the horses are out?
Coping is about facing the trauma and finding a way to live with it. Mary Grace Garis writes for Well+Good (2020) and mentions three styles of coping: Task-oriented coping, Emotional-oriented coping, and Avoidance.
For taskers, they need to keep busy, get involved in things, clean, work overtime, do something. This can be good if you’re going on a hike and enjoying nature or taking extra yoga classes. This can be dangerous if you’re pulling extra overtime shifts so you’re less at home, less with family, and exposed to more trauma.
Emotional people need to feel to cope. This means anything from journaling or meditating to… other activities that… make you feel good in the moment. Journaling and meditating is great! Talking to a therapist or coach is excellent. Sleeping around or doing drugs is, well, not recommended for a healthy lifestyle and a poor road to recovery.
Avoiders simply avoid. This is perhaps altogether a poor choice. Avoiding the place of trauma is fine, or talking about it with friends and family – understandable. Sooner or later, that trauma will rear its ugly head and you will need to face it. Avoiders need a better coping mechanism, even if it’s controlled and kept to only the avoider and, say, a coach or therapist. Avoiding can, like the others, lead to deeper scars.
Imagine that you have the tools to cope, and that coping comes more easily because you’ve become resilient before trauma ever happens. Imagine that! You could have tools and skills to get through trauma before it happens so that when – yes, when – trauma happens, you’re prepared. This is resiliency.
“Resilience is our ability to adapt or bounce back when things don’t go as planned. Resilience is not about being without any problems, rather it is learning to deal with problems by using tools and skills to stay strong and deal with problems as they come up.” National Alliance on Mental Illness, Resiliency During COVID-19 and Beyond (2020)
Katie Hurley, LCSW, of Everyday Health, speaks about resiliency in her article from July, What Is Resilience? Your Guide to Facing Life’s Challenges, Adversities, and Crises (2022). “It’s important to note that being resilient requires a skill set that you can work on and grow over time. Building resilience takes time, strength, and help from people around you; you’ll likely experience setbacks along the way. It depends on personal behaviors and skills (like self-esteem and communication skills), as well as external things (like social support and resources available to you).”
Tools for Resiliency
She notes several factors of resiliency:
- Social support
- Coping skills
- Communication skills
- Emotional regulation
All these factors are tools for resiliency and play off each other. Being thankful for what and who you have brings meaning to your life despite your current situation. Forgiving others (and using good communication skills to do so) unloads major weight off one’s heart and helps tremendously with emotional stress and self-esteem. Having social support also helps with self-esteem and acceptance.
Building a Safe System
When building a safe system for first responders to deal with trauma, there’s a lot to consider. Imagine you’re going hiking. You need to prepare by being aware of the area you’ll travel in. Are there bears? A rushing river? Steep terrain? You need to bring supplies to prepare such as rope, a first aid kit, and a way to call for help. You also need some training. Don’t hit Kilimanjaro on your first trip up a mountain. Fools who take to the woods or mountains for the first time with no preparations end up stranded, hungry, cold, lost, injured or worse.
In first responder life, we train in classrooms and in practical lessons. We learn the basics of the job, the tools, and protocols. We have safety gear, backup plans, and partners to help us along the way. What’s missing? We can cuff a bad guy, stop traffic, put out a fire, backboard a patient, and even open a trapped car. But what are we doing to prepare our heads and our hearts? There’s no training for that, no tool set, and few resources or supports in place.
Getting help after the trauma happens is necessary for sure. Even an experienced hiker can get lost, but an experienced hiker will recover more quickly and survive more readily than a newbie. Let’s start preparing our first responders from the start. Let’s start thinking more about resiliency instead of waiting for something with which we need to cope. Coping skills are important, but resiliency builds better teams, shortens leave, and lessens burdens on the rest of the department. Let’s take mental health safety seriously from the start by preparing like we do for everything else.