Professor’s Research Endeavors to Provide ‘Help to the Helpers’
The son of a longtime emergency dispatcher, Paul Bourgeois, Ph.D., CRC, NCC, is focusing his own career on fostering the mental health and well-being of dispatchers – critical emergency responders who haven’t always received the support and services they’ve needed.
October 4, 2022
By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications
Ever since he was a kid growing up in eastern Massachusetts, Paul Bourgeois, Ph.D., CRC, NCC, was inspired by his parents who showed him how helping others in a service profession is both professionally and personally rewarding. They inspired his own passion for helping others, as well as his career as a researcher and educator.
Dr. Bourgeois’s mother, a nurse at Boston Children’s Hospital, and his father, an emergency dispatcher who recently retired after nearly a quarter century of service, led by example, he says.
“My father’s personal experiences and the stories he’s shared have directly and indirectly impacted both my research and overall path to becoming a counselor educator,” explains Dr. Bourgeois. “Due in part to the many discussions I’ve had with my father, I’ve come to learn that emergency dispatchers are underserved in terms of their mental health needs, with very few researchers examining the factors that may mediate the psychological and emotional demands of their work.”
‘It was very humbling to share my work’
Coordinator of the University’s M.S. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling program and an assistant professor, Dr. Bourgeois has focused on issues related to professional ethical behavior and professional issues in counseling. But, in his research, he found a lack of empirical information about how emergency dispatchers experience their work and manage to cope with its psychological challenges.
As part of his research, Dr. Bourgeois aims to understand dispatchers’ experiences and learn about the strategies that promote their mental health and well-being. He hopes this will eventually lead to impactful stress reduction and health intervention strategies that will help those who help ensure the health, safety, and well-being of so many.
“The outcomes of these studies might be used to help guide interventions to increase professional quality of life of emergency dispatchers,” said Dr. Bourgeois, who is conducting research focused on counselors, ethics, and technology. “I hope this will also help develop associated coping strategies used to manage stressful work situations.”
“It was very humbling to share my work with such a large audience,” he said. “Ultimately, my goal in sharing my work on a platform such as Dispatch in Depth is to help raise awareness related to the mental health needs of emergency dispatchers. This is particularly important for a field that has historically stigmatized mental health issues and concerns.”
‘Extremely rewarding on both a personal and professional level’
Dr. Bourgeois acknowledges that all public safety professionals are under significant stress, due to the nature of their critical and high-stakes work. While this has been a known challenge for some time, he believes more support is needed for dispatchers – unsung heroes in emergency situations who regularly respond to a variety of traumatic events.
“Although emergency dispatchers are not typically in visual contact with the emergencies or physically present at the scene of a traumatic event, they are responsible for sending other first responders to dangerous environments,” he said. “They are also tasked with providing psychological support to civilians on the other end of the call. While police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical personnel are typically recognized for their hard work on-scene, the role of the emergency dispatcher is often overlooked and underappreciated.”
Dr. Bourgeois’s work is, perhaps, more critical than ever, as the pandemic has had a profound effect on the mental health and well-being of first responders. Dr. Bourgeois believes COVID-related stressors had an especially pronounced effect on them as essential workers, and that these stressors are among the many threats to their mental health.
In addition to his research, Dr. Bourgeois is also training the future helpers of dispatchers. In his work, he has found a meaningful way to give back to others – much as his parents did. He hopes his students will also be able to make an important difference in their careers.
“Ultimately, our goal is to prepare counselors to work in an increasingly diverse society within a broad range of practice settings to help individuals, groups, and families overcome emotional and psychological challenges,” he said. “Helping students develop the skills, knowledge, and awareness necessary to engage in this critically important work is extremely rewarding on both a personal and professional level.”