Making Mental Health a Priority in Spill Response and Beyond

May is mental health awareness month, and even though it is now June, mental health should be something that we are aware of, and actively work towards, every day of the year. 

The pandemic has given us many lessons, but one of the most poignant lessons is that mental health is essential for overall well-being in everyday life. And mental well-being can be affected by many factors, including sickness (of ourselves or someone we care about), the loss of a loved person or a pet, the loss of a job, divorce, etc. These stressful events that can greatly impact our mental health will happen in everyone’s life. These challenging events are usually beyond our control. However, how we respond to stressful or otherwise challenging events IS within our control, even though sometimes it is difficult to believe this and may take years of practice. 

When difficult times come our way and cause us anger, sadness, and frustration, changing how we relate to and think about our emotions can have a powerful effect on our overall mental health. Instead of pushing away difficult emotions and labeling them as “good” or “bad”, if we are able to view emotions as indicators or data points and realize that we are not our emotions (“I am noticing sadness” instead of “I am sad”), this can help us be more resilient in the face of challenging times. For more on this, I encourage you to watch this powerful TED talk by Susan Davis.

When we experience difficult emotions, knowing that they won’t last forever (after all, nothing does) can be a powerful tool in helping us be in the driver seat, instead of our emotions taking over the steering wheel. Easier said than done, right?  Having the right tools for any job can help make that job easier, as is the case with mental well-being and resilience. Each person is different, so knowing what tools might help is the first step.  Tools can include practices of mindfulness, meditation, exercise, walks in nature, journaling, yoga practice, warm baths, prayer, or talking with a friend or therapist. These are just a few of many potential options that could make a difference in how you relate to challenging emotions and events, and build resiliency as well as improve mental well-being.

So where does spill response fit in all this?  Well, being involved in any type of emergency (either as a bystander or as an active participant), can be a highly stressful experience. Not only is it a stressor, but for those that are deployed, it usually means long hours day after day, and can sometimes mean exposure to animal suffering, which can only add to the overall challenge of these events. 

The OWCN recognizes that responder mental health during spills is essential for overall success of that response. By providing support and resources to wildlife responders, both before and during a response, and increasing awareness and importance of wellness, we are hoping to collectively increase our resilience and help avoid responder burnout. 

The OWCN has worked hard to incorporate awareness of the importance of mental well-being into trainings, and offers a webinar (“Trauma Resiliency”) that can be accessed any time through the Volunteer profile if you are in the Better Impact database. Additionally, one of the working groups that was formed during our last Planning Summit was the Responder Wellness Group. Since Oct. 2020 this group has been meeting regularly to develop ideas for increasing wellness tools, both before and during response. I don’t want to spoil the surprise by announcing all the cool things this group has been working on, but stay tuned!

As we slowly return to more of a “normal” post-pandemic life, let’s make sure we are all taking care of our mental health. As mentioned, there are tools that we can use to help our mental health, but also know that sometimes that is not enough and we need to reach out for help, and that is OK. Know that seeking help is a sign of courage, not weakness. We are all in this together. There are many online resources, but one place you can start is here.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, contact the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or dial 911 in case of emergency.


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