October 10 is World Mental Health Day, a day encouraging increased awareness of mental health through education.
In the community of first responders, mental health issues are an unfortunately ever-present reality. Encountering tragic incidents on a regular basis can take a cumulative toll. While issues like post-traumatic stress and high suicide rates among the first responder population are pervasive, an open dialogue about treatment for these issues remains disregarded by many.
However, evidence-based treatment for trauma does exist. It’s little known in the EMS community, but its success rates demand its name to be known—it’s called eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR).
A widely accepted form of psychotherapy practiced by 80,000 clinicians worldwide, EMDR is one of only three therapies recommended by the Department of Defense and the Veterans’ Administration for PTSD treatment. One of those practicing clinicians is Jim Marshall, MA, director of the 911 Training Institute, an organization that provides resilience training to 9-1-1 telecommunicators and other EMS professionals.
“Essentially, EMDR helps to reprocess traumatic information,” says Marshall, who has 25 years of experience as a trauma therapist. “We can apply EMDR and the pictures would fade, the emotions would melt off and the thoughts would change so they would truly be able to believe that it’s over. We are reprocessing that information and desensitizing the emotions connected with the event.”
Clinicians trained in EMDR implement a technique modeled after the neuromechanism of rapid eye movement (REM) stages of sleep, referred to as saccadic eye movements, which entail moving the eyes from one fixed point to the next.
The REM stages of sleep are “very important for us to be able to process life, restore our energy… and are vital to human health,” says Marshall. Researchers believe applying saccadic eye movements while a client focuses on the traumatic experience helps to accelerate the processing of traumatic information, as it activates bilateral stimulation of the brain’s left and right hemispheres, playing a key role in EMDR’s healing effect.
Krista Haugen, RN, MN, CEN, cofounder of the Survivors Network for the Air Medical Community, experienced the healing power of EMDR nearly 11 years following a harrowing helicopter crash she survived. Haugen was a flight nurse for Airlift 3 outside of Seattle. In 2005, while taking off to transport a patient, a loss of engine power sent the helicopter plummeting to the ground. While the crew and patient survived, the experience did not leave Haugen unaffected.
“You feel like you’re going out of your head, which is a very distressing feeling for people who are normally very much in control, very much used to being the ones who bring calm to the chaos and being the rescuers,” Haugen says. She recalls her drastic shift from being highly motivated and dedicated to her job to being “reduced to somebody who was really struggling.”
Haugen says this emotional toil impacts many aspects of an individual’s life, like income, relationships and quality of work output.