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Arkansas Tech University students delivers mental health message



Little Rock, Arkansas – Misty Sutton, a student at Arkansas Tech University, addressed the attendees of the International Association of Emergency Managers’ 70th annual conference as she stood in front of them.

“Disaster response is really hard,” said Sutton, who spoke at a plenary session at the conference in Savannah, Ga., in November 2022. “We work 12-to-24 hour days in the midst of a disaster response, so I wanted to share the finding that self-care is not only possible, but vital. Community members need to remember that emergency responders are human. They have families. They need sleep, and they need to eat. They cannot sustain emergency response without those vital self-care practices. Long-lasting self-sacrifice is unsustainable, and there are things we need to do and can do to take care of ourselves.”

Sutton decided to do an interdisciplinary study by analyzing how disaster responders deal with stress, which is a natural part of their line of work when she was assigned a research topic in one of her behavioral science classes at ATU.

Her presentation at the IAEM conference was built around the resulting article.

“There is this expectation among responders as well as within the community during a disaster response that responders are heroes and there’s an expectation they should sacrifice themselves for others,” said Sutton. “I explored about 25 different articles, and what I found across those was how to implement self-care practices in the disaster field. I also included information about my own experiences responding to disasters.

“Going into it, especially as a responder myself, it was interesting to find that my concerns in terms of a lack of self-care in disaster response and the importance of mental health in disaster response were shared by others,” continued Sutton. “That was incredibly reassuring to me and it led to my desire to present at the International Association of Emergency Managers conference. I wanted responders to know they are not alone in these feelings.”

According to Sutton, the future of the profession depends on aggressively addressing the mental health problems that exist in the emergency management industry. She pointed to rising rates of alcoholism, divorce, and suicide among emergency managers as proof of the pressure and stress experienced by field workers.

“The Journal of Emergency Management recently published a survey whereby a systemic exit of emergency managers from the field was observed,” said Sutton. “People are tired and burned out. I want to see emergency managers understand the importance of dispelling the expectation of altruism that comes with disaster response. It’s not healthy, and it’s not sustainable. We have to protect the mental health of disaster and emergency responders. It is not only important but necessary to the survival of the emergency management field.”

Sutton, who will graduate from Arkansas Tech in May 2023, feels that her education and work experience have equipped her for the future.

“I love Arkansas Tech because it’s a very student-focused university,” said Sutton. “I love my instructors. I love Dr. (Sandy) Smith. She is such a champion for students and a champion for not just the profession of emergency management, but the development of emergency management as a profession so it can continue to grow. As a student, I feel like I’ve been wildly supported in my academic role and my professional role.”