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The new tech that supports emergency workers’ mental health

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As an online mental health service for first responders in Australia, backed by Prince Harry, is launched – how can tech help support the mental health of frontline workers?

Of the thousands of people there, only one knew exactly what was about to happen. Adrenaline kicked in as he ran towards the screams. He stopped. Turned. And in that split second, he saw into the future – the reality he’d created for himself in his mind the night before: the sharp intake of breath; the flash of yellow; the leap as instinct took over.

Thwack! The ball cracked against the back of the net. The 25-year-old Wayne Rooney peeled away to the corner to celebrate. The striker scored a record 253 goals for Manchester United but this majestic overhead kick against Manchester City is often described as his best.

From a young age, Rooney had used visualisation techniques to imagine himself performing well and scoring goals. Now, that same psychological strategy forms part of a mental fitness toolkit called Peak Fortem, which has been designed to give Australia’s first responders practical ways to improve their wellbeing.

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The service is a collaboration between not-for-profit Fortem Australia, which provides support for emergency service workers and their families, and Peak State, a UK social enterprise backed by Prince Harry, The Duke of Sussex. It aims to lessen the impact of first responders’ high-pressure roles by building their mental resilience.

“Serving in the military, I saw first-hand how critical it is to train your mind as a muscle — not only to endure challenges and stresses, but to excel, grow, and build resilience in all aspects of life,” says Prince Harry. “With Peak Fortem, we are witnessing the next step in a global movement towards mental fitness.”

The project has also been described as “tremendous” by Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister.

It comes highly recommended then. But can technological solutions ever compete with traditional counselling, for example?

Research suggests that around 10 per cent of emergency service workers develop post-traumatic stress disorder

Research suggests that around 10 per cent of emergency service workers develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Credit: Fire and Rescue NSW

Research by the Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry revealed that around 10 per cent of emergency service workers develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For firefighters who tackle bushfires, the figure increases to 15 per cent. However, a third of frontline staff who said they have suffered with “severe” psychological distress, had not accessed any mental health assistance within the previous month. Peak Fortem – free and easily accessible – could be a way to change that.

The toolkit utilises 20 cognitive behavioural techniques and emotional regulation strategies that are proven to improve mental wellbeing. These include creativity as a form of mindfulness, grounding techniques, and helping workers to acknowledge their strengths.

“For far too long, many people have only considered mental health as something to acknowledge when they’re struggling or unwell,” noted David Wiseman, co-founder of Peak State. Along with Nathan Jones, Wiseman developed the popular UK mental fitness site HeadFIT which launched in early 2020. “We hope to show that proactively building and maintaining mental fitness helps people to thrive,” he adds.

Mental maintenance, rather than repair

One first responder who is already making use of the techniques is Kylie Rigg, patrol group inspector at the Queensland police service. As a trained negotiator, Rigg has had to deal with siege situations, suicidal members of public, and civil unrest between groups with weapons. “A good level of mental fitness ultimately helps us perform better,” she says.

Rigg uses positive self-talks to stay psychologically sharp. She writes down any thoughts she has that feel unhelpful or unproductive, and then reframes them in a more constructive way. “[It’s] about thinking about previous situations where I’ve approached something similar and I’ve had a good outcome and knowing that I can actually do it again,” she adds.

‘A good level of mental fitness ultimately helps us perform better,’ says Rigg

‘A good level of mental fitness ultimately helps us perform better,’ says Kylie Rigg, of the Queensland police service. Credit: Fire and Rescue NSW

The toolkit bridges a gap between two of the most common solutions for frontline workers: pre-incident training and post-incident support. The skills that first responders learn from the website are supplemented by Fortem Australia with professional clinical care, psychological support and group activities that improve mental wellbeing.

The UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) is among the other organisations shifting their focus from reactive mental health care to a more proactive approach. From April, mental health training will be mandatory for all members of the armed forces. As well as a 24-hour helpline for service personnel and their families, each service will have its own mental health and resilience training.

“The mental fitness of our service personnel is just as important as their physical fitness,” a MOD spokesperson told Positive News.

But are these new strategies robust enough? And will they work for frontline workers in the future? Research by the Institute for Employment Studies and Cranfield University, which explored the use of mindfulness in the military, suggests approaches will need to be tailored to each sector.

NHS mental health

Covid-19 has forced NHS England to look at the mental health services it provides for staff. Image: Luke Jones

“High-achieving military personnel may be less likely to engage with meditation alone, because of its self-help connotations,” concluded the report. It also suggested the military population could be more vulnerable to unearthing latent trauma through individual meditation sessions.

Covid-19 has also forced NHS England to look at the mental health services it provides for staff. An estimated 40 per cent of NHS staff are now displaying probable symptoms of PTSD due to the pandemic. In response, £15m has been invested into services such as resilience hubs – offering localised mental health advice and support for staff – as well as new small-scale solutions.

The mental fitness of our service personnel is just as important as their physical fitness

One such example is the Supporting our Staff scheme at Northampton General Hospitals NHS Trust. The peer-delivered solution teaches non-clinical staff to spot the early signs of PTSD. Those at risk are then fast-tracked for professional support, with a psychologist deployed on-site to improve flexibility. Informal feedback on the scheme has been overwhelmingly positive. A formal evaluation is now taking place to see if it should be retained and expanded.

Whatever the outcome, our mental health solutions are changing rapidly. Many in the sector are calling for a newly coherent and more integrated approach – and services like Peak Fortem could be part of that.

Main image: Fire and Rescue NSW



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