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Responding to first responders: Bay Path professor builds course to help first responders cope with stress

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“Simple, but not easy” is how Kristina Hallett describes the exercises and techniques she uses to help manage stress, both her own and that of those she works with. Throughout her career as a clinical psychologist, Dr. Hallett has worked in prisons and addiction programs and with adolescents in the juvenile justice system, routinely engaging with personal trauma and the deep and tragic ways it can shape lives.

Hallett’s personal work experience has made her acutely familiar with the intense pressure and sadness inevitably absorbed by professionals, who regularly witness the impacts of trauma as they work to counsel the traumatized. “I have a lot of compassion for the people whose trauma is not visible, and I know that there are people with extensive wounds that you can’t see,” she says.

It is this perspective that underlies her impulse to assist first responders and their families as they deal with the escalated demands and unprecented risks the coronavirus has brought to their work. Hallett, the director of clinical training for Bay Path’s graduate psychology programs in Developmental Psychology and Clinical Mental Health Counseling, applied her experience and concern to the development of two free online courses, specifically for first responders and their families.

“I asked myself, 'Who’s going to need the most support and who is the least likely to have it?' Based on experience, I knew it would be first responders, specifically firefighters, police officers and EMS workers,” she states.

Research has shown that more firefighters and police officers die by suicide than in the line of duty, and that rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression are nearly five times higher among firefighters and police officers than the general public.

“In those roles, there’s still a strong holdover culture that associates stress with weakness,” Hallett explains. “National professional organizations that represent first responders have been trying to teach about resilience, self-care and stress management, and I use articles and links directly from those organizations, so as not to make it ‘some mental health thing.’”

“When I talk about the importance of breathing, everybody rolls their eyes,” she continues. “So I start with a brief introduction to neurophysiology and how the limbic system works. These are structural, physical, biological facts that apply to all humans.”

With short, direct lessons, created with those apt to dismiss meditation and breathwork as misguided woo-woo in mind, Hallett’s courses are not meant to be clinical interventions, but more to provide supportive resources. “I intentionally used videos,” she explains. “We are inundated by news, and I wanted to give people connection to an actual person carrying hope and compassion.”

The foundation of the work is Hallett’s oft-repeated mantra, “Simple, but not easy.” Every technique she includes is under three minutes, low or no cost, and able to be done anywhere, at any time.

“I am well aware that if we don’t have our first responders, our whole system crumbles.”