In the growing efforts of peer support, the intent is there, but is the outcome enough?
“Peer Support is an incredible opportunity for members of departments to give back in meaningful ways, but only if there are policies, procedures, programs, and plans that support its development, funding, structure, training, organization, and the resources and tools needed to build a proactive health and wellness program that supports the entire membership.– Jen Anderson, founder & CEO of First Responder Coaching
We at FRC are committed to building these programs, fostering these relationships, and training the members to be active listeners, asking powerful questions, to prevent the mental health challenges that often lead to loss of life, financial instability, and loss of marriages.”
Peer Support Roadblock
Is this familiar to you?
You’re coping with job-related stress but don’t want to talk to your coworkers or partner. You don’t want to go to your chief about it because you worry you’ll be benched. A flier catches your eye for a supposedly anonymous peer support system, so you try there.
You talk to someone you know from the department who confirms confidentiality, set up a time to meet, and start to feel like someone will listen and things will be okay.
After just one half-hour meeting, you have the names and numbers of several places that “might” help. You didn’t get to explain everything to the department’s peer support person, but it was insisted that you reach out to someone on this list in your hand.
Four of seven numbers have a waiting list, one you don’t qualify for because your case isn’t serious enough, and two have you on a waiting list. Most of them gave you the 988 information in case you needed it, but that’s it.
You’ve hit a roadblock.
Peer Support & The Middle Guy
If that scenario is familiar to you, you’re not alone. Many peer support systems often work more as liaisons or bridges to other resources. The problem is that many of those resources are often meant for extreme cases or chronic cases that involve leave or those with suicidal ideation. Those are important resources and can be hard to navigate, so having a system that does that is vital. But what about the folks who fall in between?
So many first responders are in the middle and fall in the cracks. Sometimes a person loves their work but the stress of the job, home life, trauma after trauma, finances, and more starts to weigh a bit too heavily on the mind. Sometimes the middle guys need support without going all the way to detox centers or retreat farms.
Who’s helping those guys?
The Vision of Peer Support
Peer support is a growing system in departments across the country, but without regulation or a solid understanding of what it should look like, many fall into the above image.
So, what should peer support look like?
We want to support all our first responders in every category and in every way we can. We know that run-of-the-mill mental health support isn’t enough for first responders because first responder life simply isn’t run-of-the-mill. It takes experience and understanding of the job.
That’s why peer support was initiated in the first place: to support responders with responders who know the job, hence it was aptly named “peer” support.
With peers (who know the job) supporting the department, the vision of a peer support system is to be there to support responders when they need it. Those are broad strokes, but that’s the gist. But how it gets put into action is more complicated.
The Numbers of Peer Support
Jen Anderson has spoken with several departments at various events to find out what kind of peer support they have in place. One community of 350 first responders had just ten people in their program. That’s too few peers to support such a large number. She expressed that there’s not enough time to reach out to everyone, make a connection, and keep up. It’s too overwhelming if it’s not properly organized.
For any company that large, a support system would need to be built proportionate to the needs of its members. For a first responder department of that size, it’s no different. Some metrics need to be met and it’s not going to be a quick fix. Most departments can’t afford the system they need, but they have to start somewhere.
So, who decides what’s good for their department? Should we regulate something most departments can’t afford? And how do we make sure peer support is used and effective?
Effective Peer Support
There’s no quick one-system-fits-all answer to those questions. The truth is, it takes data collection, collaboration, training, and community support.
Let’s start with data collection.
First, you not only need to know the number of first responders in a particular department, but it helps to know their demographics. How many are married? How many have kids? Are any near retirement? How many are greenbacks?
If you have a mostly young department, they’ll be more likely to be open to mental health support, peer meetings, and coaching. If it’s mostly older guys, you’ll likely approach the whole feeling-sharing notion a little differently.
Most departments are a mix though, so you’ll want to get a general idea of numbers and make sure you can cater to each demographic as much as possible.
Lastly, survey your department to find out the needs and wants of your responders when it comes to peer support. It can’t be forced, but it must be anonymous if you want honest responses.
Too many cooks may spoil the pot but one chief can’t add running a peer support system on top of all the other jobs of chief. Build a team dedicated to the mental well-being of your department. You’ll need a program coordinator, a liaison to administration and/or the chief, an outreach coordinator, a team of peers to be the peer supporters, and possibly more.
Each department has different needs and resources. One department may have someone who can fulfill two of those major positions while many work under him or her to be the team of peer supporters. Another department might have a volunteer group who share some jobs and work with only a few supporters for the responders when needed.
No one department looks the same, so each department must collaborate and decide what’s best for their community.
We train hard before we can wear a badge, drive a truck, carry a weapon, or push meds. We need to train for peer support as well. It’s not just a pat on the back and handing out numbers to crisis centers.
Peer support involves active listening, the ability to be present, and knowing the difference between venting and hiding serious intent.
Sound familiar? Peer support takes coaching skills.
Some systems use a mentorship approach. Some follow more like counseling. But the most effective peer supports are those with coach training. While all have similar styles, coaching methods allow your responders to find their own path and change their own perspectives. Having peer support trained in this manner is found to be very effective in the departments FRC has worked with.
All this might sound lovely except for one thing: implementation. Who has the time, the people, or the financial support to do all this?
That’s why community support is crucial to making a peer support system effective. Many peer support systems are like the example above because they’re missing some of the listed components. Getting a grant, securing local support, and finding the right people to be involved is probably the hardest part.
FRC can help with some of this but the most important is going to be education and advocacy.
Get the conversation started in your department, your community, and your local government. Make peer support a common phrase and make sure everyone knows its importance. Get the suicide numbers out there. Get the divorce rate out there. Tell people the truth, that first responder life is hard and needs its own unique support system.
You need to be a strong advocate to build a strong peer support system. So, get all the help you can.
The Future of Peer Support
Someday, every department will have an effective peer support system and responders will use their resources well. Peer supporters will be more than just referral coordinators and phone books. They’ll be an open door to peer-to-peer discussions, regular check-ins, and red-flag spotters.
Someday, communities won’t be hearing as much about responder suicides and divorces. Years on the job will increase as will overall job satisfaction. Departments will be better funded and better supported. Wait lists will be a thing of the past.
But, for now, enough daydreaming. Let’s get to work.