GMR Life: Supporting emergency responders and changing mental health stigma in EMS

by Matt Philbrick - Manager, GMR Life, Global Medical Response

“We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that frontline responders, emergency responders of all disciplines, can benefit from having comprehensive  and supported health and wellness resources.”

Emergency Medical Services is an incredible profession.  As an emergency responder, we have a unique opportunity to serve our communities in times of crisis by responding to emergency calls for service. Service to our communities is an incredible gift. And it’s an honor to be able to do that. A career in the service to others, especially in the form of emergency medical services, is something very few people get to experience. It can add incredible value to your life.

The double edge to this sword is the heightened exposure to suffering and, as a result, an increase of stress in the emergency medical services industry. To amplify the stress risk, the public expects responders to provide excellent medical care 100% of the time, in a high-risk high-reliability environment. The people we serve expect us to perform perfectly. As servants to the public, we step up and answer the call, anytime of the day or night, 24/7/365. When someone calls 911, our teams are ready to respond.

That level of unmitigated stress also can impact your life and your relationships. And the toll it takes on responders is high. It can lead emergency responders to lean on unhealthy coping mechanisms. These include disengagement from healthy relationships, substance abuse, unhealthy habits, like lack of sleep, and working too much or too little.

GMR Life

We often talk about all the bad calls and all the horrible stuff we see. Yes, it takes a toll. Yes, there's stress injury formation and complex trauma and things that come from a career of service. But there’s also a lot of benefit that this job can add to our lives.

GMR Life is the division created to support our people. We exist to support all GMR employees and to help mitigate that risk.

GMR Life exists to support whatever that outcome is. It’s here to provide support services and help when you need it. We also promote the idea of mental fitness, wellness, and finding the good in this job. We focus on the incredible intrinsic benefits that come with a career in service to others and help people find joy in the work they do.

That includes all emergency responders, dispatchers, EMTs, paramedics, flight nurses, flight paramedics, pilots, mechanics, respiratory therapists, administrative support teams, and company leadership.

Shattering the stigma

Our industry has a stigma surrounding mental health. We’re the helpers. We’re the people who show up on the public’s worst day. We’re expected to make instantaneous decisions on the care you or your loved ones receive.  We’re required to safely transport you to a receiving facility, all times of the day and night, sometimes in austere environments. That’s an incredible burden.

The paradigm shift in wellness exists for us when we shift from being the help to being the ones who request the help.

In an effort to change the stigma, we encourage responders to identify when it’s time for them to be the helper and when it’s the time for you to ask for help.

By building resiliency and a mental fitness skillset, responders see improvement in their clinical practice and the patient care they provide. It can improve your patient outcomes. If you’re a healthy and happy paramedic or EMT, you provide better care to your patients.

Finding balance

One of the ways we approach talking about wellness and finding what works and what doesn’t work is we ask, “What’s the best wellness thing to do? If you could only give me one tip, if you could only suggest one thing, what would it be?” And we say, “Find the thing that works for you and then do that.”

In the work that GMR Life does with responders, we find that wellness practices are rarely significantly large or life-changing events. We find that a small sustainable practice is the most effective for life-long mental fitness.

You can do small mindfulness exercises. Short meditation exercises, 5-minute walks, non-sleep deep rest exercises, or physical fitness. Whatever works for you, continue to do that thing.  And while you do that thing, focus on how that’s making you feel. Ideally, it makes you feel great.

GMR in the field

GMR teams answer the call.  Our teams deploy to natural disasters, catastrophic events, and other crisis events. These deployments may span weeks or sometimes months, depending on the scale and severity of the disaster and the long-term effects it will have on communities. Since 2020, GMR teams have deployed to establish fixed-site COVID responses that provide staffing and medical resources for overwhelmed emergency departments and 9-1-1 systems across the country.

Part of the support we provide to our responders is through the GMR Therapy Dog Team. This incredible program started in 2016 with just two dogs in Texas. It’s grown to over 40 dogs nationally. The dogs integrate with teams in the field as a force multiplier for wellness practices and are viewed as a crew member within the local operations and airbases.

The GMR Therapy Dog Team provides human-animal interaction that is part of an evidence-driven process. There is a significant amount of research that shows integrating animals into mental health programs has substantial long-term benefits – from improved cognitive ability to decreased stress injury formation. Adding therapy dogs into a comprehensive wellness program, such as peer support, chaplaincy, and crisis support, positively impacts the effectiveness of those resources.

Working with FirstNet

GMR has an incredible relationship with FirstNet. In early 2020, we teamed up with the Response Operations Group (ROG) to develop a program where GMR therapy dogs and handlers would deploy as part of the FirstNet ROG the Dog program to FirstNet customers across the United States. Since then, ROG the Dog requests have supported agencies in multiple situations. We’ve deployed dogs in the wake of line-of-duty deaths for law enforcement officers, mass shootings, large-scale fire events and emergency operation centers that have opened in the wake of natural disasters.

ROG the Dog received a significant amount of positive feedback in places where they’ve deployed. The last thing people expect to see is a therapy dog in an emergency operations center in the middle of a wildfire.

Going forward

We know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that emergency responders of all disciplines can benefit from having comprehensive and supportive health and wellness resources.

I would encourage anyone who is involved in this profession as an emergency responder to reach out for help if they need it.

For anyone who is interested in learning more about health and wellness resources or wants to promote health and wellness in their operation or their division, to start that conversation. The first step in changing the culture of wellness in EMS or changing the stigma surrounding mental health in EMS is by being a champion for living well – start that conversation in your agency.

Matt Philbrick is the manager for GMR Life at Global Medical Response. He has been involved in emergency medical services for about 18 years as an EMT, paramedic, flight paramedic and Operations Manager and has worked on 9-1-1 and critical care ambulances, both ground and in air. Matt holds a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice Administration from San Diego State University and two master's degrees – a Master of Management and Leadership and a traditional MBA.