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New program offers peer support for first responders

First responders such as paramedics and EMTs face constant stress and risk on the job. Despite extensive training, they are never fully prepared for the trauma they encounter. They often respond to the worst days of people’s lives — accidents, deaths, fires and other tragic events. Data show that nearly 70% of first responders report not having enough recovery time between traumatic calls.

Whitney Hagar has been a paramedic for seven years. Every time she rushes to an emergency with sirens blaring, she said, she knows she’s risking her own mental health.

“I did have somebody that I responded to that had committed suicide, and that one is something that's kind of stuck with me. That particular person was around a similar age that I was at the time,” Hagar said. “I know for some of my co-workers calls involving pediatrics can be especially difficult.”


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Research shows that first responders experience feelings of depression, job burnout and troubled relationships and report substance use at a higher rate than the general population. They are significantly more likely to die by suicide than the general public.

But they often feel hesitant about seeking help because they worry it might make them seem less capable at their jobs.

“I dealt with it on my own. I didn't really reach out to anybody," Hagar said. "It was just something that I kind of internalized, thought about for a little bit. And then after time was able to move on from.”

Another challenge is the scarcity of mental health resources tailored to emergency response workers. They often end up seeing general practitioners who might not fully understand what they go through on the job, said Jacqueline O'Hagen, a paramedic with American Medical Response.

A new program at AMR San Diego aims to tackle these challenges by offering psychological crisis intervention training to paramedics, EMTs and dispatchers.


O'Hagen is a peer support lead with AMR who developed the training program. She said the goal is for participants to learn how to support each other.

“We gave them a very solid base of how to talk to individuals on like a personal basis, as well as debriefs, as well as a group debrief. So really kind of hitting at all different aspects of what a peer supporter might respond to,” she said.

O’Hagen believes that the training is the first of its kind in the country because it combines a mental health professional who has firsthand experience in emergency response. She hopes that the training will help make discussions about trauma and triggers easier for her colleagues.