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Mental Health Insights for 9-1-1 Professionals

Updated: Jul 19, 2021


Special Guest Writers

Since 1949, the United States has observed the month of May as national "Mental Health Awareness Month". The field of mental health, health care organizations, non-profit organizations and partnering affiliates use the media and community events to do outreach and engagement. One of the underlying goals is to show support for those living with a mental illness by de-stigmatizing mental health conditions. That stigma is intensified among 9-1-1 professionals.

The mental health professionals below are subject matter experts in stress-related injuries experienced by first-responders. They specialize in working with all first-responders, including dispatchers, to help those public servants recover and grow after exposure to traumatic events.

In our continued observance of Mental Health Awareness Month, we asked these mental health professionals to share their insights about what this month should mean to dispatchers. This May, we hope their inspirational messages encourage dispatchers to seek appropriate help and treatment...


Jim Marshall, M.A. Founder & Director, 911 Training Institute Co-Editor, The Resilient 9-1-1 Professional

My father was a very wise man. When I was a young clinician-in-training, he was inspired to share his Peanut Up the Nose Theory. Perhaps he figured it would enrich my grasp of human behavior in the real world I’d soon encounter. It did. So, now, I’d like to share it with you too.

One morning as a well-meaning but somewhat hungover father exited the house for work, he gave his beloved five year-old son special instructions. There was a bowl full of roasted peanuts sitting on the coffee table, left from a party the night before. The dad, in a hurry, cautioned Jr.: “Son…” he said, “Whatever you do today, do not put one of those peanuts up your nose.”

Well, the boy had never even had a thought of doing such a foolish, dangerous thing. Until then. Using all his burgeoning fine motor coordination, he lifted a solitary peanut from the dish, held it to the sky, and observed it for several long seconds, like a fine jeweler inspecting a gorgeous diamond. Then, almost hypnotically, he slowly moved his hand from the sky toward his nose, and carefully inserted the peanut.

Just then, realizing his transgression against his beloved father, he gasped, with his mouth closed; and the peanut that had been resting happily half-in, half-out of his cute, little right nostril was sucked up, with great force, into the utter most regions of his nasal cavity. He sat, whimpering, ashamed and defeated, attended now by his dog, who split his glances between the boy’s red face and the bowl of peanuts.

After many long hours waiting in the emergency room, the doctor saw the boy. As he shone his light into the youngster’s nose, he asked as if deeply puzzled, yet also impressed, “How…in the…worrrrld, did this boy get that peanut so far into his nasal passage?”

The father (who was summoned there from work by his overwhelmed partner) gulped and fessed up. With great difficulty and a long stainless appliance, the skilled physician dislodged the intrusive nut, narrowly averting surgery.

What is the moral to this story, and what does it have to do with 9-1-1 professionals during Mental Health Awareness Month? Well, shoot! I’m not sure. But if I did tell you the moral to my dad’s theory, you certainly can’t win a signed copy of The Resilient 9-1-1 Professional!

Here’s the invitation: write up one paragraph explaining the meaning of The Peanut Up the Nose Theory, and how it can apply to 9-1-1 mental health. If your entry is the best (or the worst, but the funniest), we will publish it here and I will send you that book!

And yes, I am a mental health therapist. I could offer you some thoughts about Mental Health Awareness Month. But we have three phenomenal guest experts who have already prepared wonderful insights for you. So read on--and then email me that entry at!


Heather Williams, Psy.D. Founder and Psychologist, Premier First Responder Psychological Services

Resilience Instructor, 911 Training Institute

I'm sitting here thinking about May as Mental Health Awareness Month and wondering as 9-1-1 dispatchers why every month shouldn't be Mental Health Awareness Month.

Actually, as dispatchers I want to remind you that you are human beings first with multiple roles; mother, father, wife, husband, partner, daughter, son... so I'd like to say that every day of the year is an opportunity to be there for others, but are you there for YOU? Does the idea of self-care reflect a reaction of being "selfish?"

If so, I want you to remember that taking care of yourself doesn't mean, "Me first," it can mean, "Me too." Even if it's 10 minutes a day to practice breathing or listening to your favorite song, you are too important as the first, first-responder to become a depleted version of yourself. That depletion affects relationships at home, at work, your thoughts, reactions and behavior. It can lead to depression, anxiety and insomnia.

You deserve wellness in every aspect of your life so please take control of what that looks like since you are uniquely you. I honor you today and every day for being that voice of calm, the lifeline to the caller having their worst day and you having the strength and resiliency to be there to assist when most wouldn't.


Stephanie Conn, Ph.D. Founder and Licensed Psychologist, First Responder Psychology Author, Increasing Resilience in Police and Emergency Personnel

Dispatchers, you are the invisible first link in the chain of first-responder work. Sadly, you also have historically been invisible when it comes to being included in mental health support and training. My background as a dispatcher gives me great respect for all that you do and a passion for promoting your resilience.

To be resilient, you must make small, daily decisions to take care of yourself. There’s no need to wait on your agency to lift you up. You don’t need perfect circumstances or a break in life difficulties to have the time to do it either. Right now, you are in the best position to lift yourself and others up. Here are some suggestions for things you can start doing.

Mine for the good. Instead of only thinking of what went wrong on your call, your shift, or your day, try to think of what went well. At a minimum, there was something that didn’t go as bad as you thought it would/could have. What did you do well? What do you appreciate that others did? It can be as small as an officer not jumping the mic. Offset the brain’s natural tendency to fixate on the negative to the detriment of the positive. I’m not suggesting you be oblivious to the bad. It exists. I’m asking you to consider the whole picture, which includes the good.

Spread the good. Sadly, bad news gets around twice as fast and as often as good news. Let’s change that. Express your appreciation for others. Give others genuine compliments. Notice I said genuine. You will get just as much out of it as the person you’re complimenting/showing appreciation for. Probably more. Your shift to the positive can be more contagious than COVID, multiplying the good in your agency.

Get some shut eye. Well-being is not possible without a rested brain and body. Lack of sleep damages your brain and body, battering your memory, focus, mood, and decision-making. Here are some tips for better sleep.

· Avoid lights – lower lights as your day (whatever time is your day) progresses. Light signals to the body to slow the production of melatonin, which is needed for sleepiness. This includes lights from phones, tablets, computers, television, etc.

· Stop caffeine 5-7 hours before bedtime.

· Avoid heavy meals within 3 hours of bedtime.

· Avoid alcohol- it disrupts the second half of sleep in your night.

· Have a bedtime ritual that occupies the mind so it doesn’t get fixed on worries – reading/ listening to a book, writing in a journal (gratitude or otherwise), meditate (with or without a smartphone app. that is dimmed), doing word find puzzles.

· Take a hot bath/shower before bed. Oddly, when you get out, your core temperature will drop and prepare your body for sleep.

· Exercise early in the day (at least several hours before bedtime)

· Schedule 7-9 hours of sleep in a cold, dark room.

I’ll end by encouraging you with a twist on the Golden Rule: Instead of treating others as you would have them treat you, treat yourself as you would your most loved other.


Michelle Lilly, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Psychology, Northern Illinois University Owner and Provider, 9-1-1 Recovers, LLC

We are now firmly into May, which is Mental Heath Awareness Month. This May will perhaps be one for the records in terms of stress, as many people are confronted with new or ongoing challenges presented by COVID-19.

Many people are experiencing significant role strain – feeling as though they are tasked with new or changing roles that make it hard to perform important and more familiar roles. Some may be feeling a deep sense of restriction, whether that restriction is in professional domains (e.g., being unable to travel) or physical domains (e.g., not being able to go to our favorite restaurant with friends). No one individual, organization, or government can control COVID-19, only adapt to new circumstances and wait, accepting our lack of control.

As social creatures, human contact has a profound impact on our physical and psychological health, and we are now limited in these contacts to staring into screens. Though connecting online can still be gratifying, it does not produce the same salutary benefits. These challenges can have profound effects on mental health, or intensify symptoms of depression, anxiety, and trauma-related symptoms for those who struggled prior to the current pandemic.

It may feel as though now is an inopportune time to seek help. However, many (if not most) mental health practitioners have adopted telehealth approaches to continue to meet the needs of their community. Insurance companies have responded with COVID-specific allowances that reimburse for telehealth services. Some practices have remained open for in-person services, as many states have acknowledged mental health practitioners as essential personnel.

If you are struggling, reach out. Reach out today. If you were concerned about your cholesterol, you would (hopefully) schedule an appointment. Psychological concerns are like cholesterol, ignoring the concerns is ineffective in preventing long-term impact on you, and on those you love the most.


Special thanks to the mental health professionals above for sharing their expertise and encouragement. As we recognize Mental Health Awareness Month, we also honor all the mental health professionals who dedicate their service to helping dispatchers through advocacy, research and treatment.

Deep within you lies a strength unknown. Sometimes, you just need a little help tapping into it; and when you do, you will find the sweetest freedom in healing. Together we will break the stigma. We will never have to walk alone, thanks to the special care and concern from mental health professionals like the ones above.

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