YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – A pileup of cars on the freeway, a child rescued from a burning home and another shooting victim in a retaliation pattern – all of these headlines have a similar component. First responders were called to the scene each time and later may have had trouble coping with the emotional stress.
More first responders, both police and fire, die each year from suicide than from an incident on the job, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Tracey Wright, a retired Youngstown firefighter and paramedic and now the 3rd District coordinator with the Ohio Association of Professional Fire Fighters Peer Support Team, says such calls can induce anger, trouble sleeping and a general feeling that they could have done something more or differently.
Short-term post-traumatic stress can be a normal response, Wright says. But when it continues long-term and starts interfering with the responder’s quality of life or makes them think about suicide, it’s time to look for help.
Brian Turk, who counsels with the specialized first responder treatment program at Glenbeigh in Rock Creek, Ohio, knows some people may have better coping skills than others and, therefore, the same incident can lead to two different reactions.
“From a therapy standpoint, the idea is to say, ‘If you did have a reaction to that event, guess what, you’re a human being. You’re not supposed to be superhuman or super strong,’” Turk says.
Frequently, he says, first responders are told that is what they signed up for, but they still need help managing the stress.
FIRST RESPONDER STIGMA
The firefighters peer support team that Wright works with does not keep records to maintain confidentiality. Calming the first responder, doing a lot of listening and directing them to resources to assist them is a big part of the team’s efforts.
“We’re still trying to build that trust and for people to feel comfortable reaching out to us,” Wright says. “There is still somewhat of a concern by those reaching out about what others think. … It’s evolving.”
Sometimes after a major incident, several members of the peer support team will informally go out to a department, let the responders know they are listening and let them talk.
Wright finds when an older member of the department is willing to talk about their experiences in a group setting, it can help put everyone else at ease.
Other times, an individual may wait and reach out later, one-on-one, when they feel more comfortable.
Not a licensed professional herself, Wright and other members of the peer team leave a list of resources, numbers to call and websites with additional support resources, such as FirefighterMentalHealth.org.
Glenbeigh created the specialized services for first responders only a couple years ago after seeing a major need. Aside from police, fire and EMS, first responders can also include former military, 911 dispatchers and corrections officers.
Through the program, first responders can receive counseling or even inpatient care, which can last an average of four weeks. Turk knows it can be difficult for some to take advantage of the inpatient care, especially when they have concerns about whether it could affect their job. Will they be able to carry a gun for work, still drive the fire truck or possibly need medication long-term?
“This is an area, especially, a lot of first responders treat with taboo,” Turk says. “It’s very uncomfortable for a lot of first responders to think about. Oftentimes, first responders like to handle things in-house as much as possible. There’s a lot of pride. There’s a lot of sense of ego sometimes. And so it keeps a lot of first responders from wanting to go and seek some kind of formal treatment.”
Sometimes they have been sent to counseling as a last resort, after alcohol, drug abuse or an incident on the job or off duty has led to a last-chance agreement or disciplinary actions.
At Glenbeigh, Turk says counselors try to help the first responder realize counseling and possible mental health medication can be a positive thing, something that will make him better and able to handle their job better.
“We focus a lot on occupational triggers,” Turk says, noting once they leave the program they are not cured and need to be able to recognize what may cause them to relapse.
Wright also talks about coping mechanisms, such as stress management and opportunities to get involved in a hobby, an outdoor activity geared for those who need to decompress or a return to a religious affiliation that once held meaning for that person. She also believes stepping away from social media, especially in a smaller community where everyone may be posting an opinion or misinformation about what happened, can help someone cope.
Glenbeigh is hosting a free First Responder Wellness Training event May 20 at the Harvest Church in Austinburg, Ohio.
The speaker will be Steven Click, director of the Ohio Office of First Responder Wellness, which provides specialized support and training so emergency-response agencies can address post-traumatic stress and other traumas caused by their careers. A retired lieutenant with the Ohio State Highway Patrol with 36 years of service, Click has been involved with peer support since 1992 and went to New York to help police officers cope after 9/11.
Sheila Vandergriff, director of development for Glenbeigh, says the free event is a service to the first responder community so it can better recognize signs of problems. She notes Click has spoken on the differences between the “ducks” and the “bears,” where bears might be a large-scale, mass casualty incident, and the ducks are smaller incidents that can become a whole flock on the pond.
“What are maybe some of the physical, the emotional, the spiritual things you’re going to feel that maybe you need to take action with?” Vandergriff says of Click’s topic. “He’s also going to talk about ways to work through those and how to get help.”
With the rise in mental health concerns among first responders, there also has been an increase in programming and financial support.
In 2022 the Youngstown Police Department received $36,000 to provide access to an online wellness app, which provides confidential support. The money came through the Ohio First Responder Recruitment, Retention and Resilience Program administered by the Ohio EMA.
Additionally, last June, a program through Gov. Mike DeWine’s office provided $1.3 million to three entities – the Ohio Suicide Prevention Foundation, First Responders’ Bridge and Ohio ASSIST – earmarking the money for helping first responders deal with mental crises.
Turk says when first responders complete the inpatient counseling, he always sends them away with a list of resources. Ohio Assist and the First Responders’ Bridge are two programs he recommends.
The Bridge program hosts retreats near Columbus where the entire family can attend without paying for meals and the hotel, and hear speakers geared toward first responders’ mental health and treatment.
Turk’s list also includes Copline, a toll-free number staffed by retired law enforcement officers, and a similar program for firefighters known as the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance.
Turk is a firefighter himself. Another counselor through the program has worked in law enforcement and military service.
“This is a very passionate project for us,” Turk says. “Because, for one, it’s very underserved and there’s a lot of us who could use the help, and they just need to know that the resources are there. They just have to use it and use it without fear of judgment.”
Pictured at top: Firefighters on the scene of a blaze.