Who Helps the Helpers?

Who Helps the Helpers? Click to Enlarge Photo: StockSnap on Pixabay

Responding to a call for help is a routine thing for first responders, but when those calls for help take a toll on their mental health, who helps them?

In our series, Who Helps the Helpers: Mental Health and the First Responder Community, we are taking a look at a new bill allowing for things like post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety to be considered work-related illnesses.

We will also speak with mental health professionals who specialize in aiding first responders, and first responders themselves.

Listen to the podcast by clicking here.

(KNSI) - July 22, 2019, a call came in for help at a mobile home in Paynesville. A woman called 911 to say a man was dumping gasoline all over the house.

A Stearns County Deputy Sheriff was one of the first on the scene. When he arrived, the home was fully engulfed in flames. He went inside the house with a fire extinguisher but was forced out due to heat and smoke.

The woman, 22-year-old Jamey Newport died in the fire.

This was a rare occurrence for Paynesville, but, St. Cloud Police Commander Brett Mushatt says over a first responder's career, the constant effect of all those calls can take its toll on a person's mental health. "Officers are seeing things that the general public doesn't see on a regular basis, and our officers are seeing that on a daily basis."

It can be even harder for members in rural communities because they often will know the person whose life is on the line.

Lynette Sickler is a licensed therapist in private practice in St. Cloud who works with first responders. She is also a volunteer with the Central Minnesota Critical Incident Stress Management Team.

Sickler says some first responders may find it difficult to seek help, or they may feel reluctant to do so, partially due to expectations of people in first responder professions like police officers and firefighters are always strong and tough, both mentally and physically. Those expected by society to show no weakness, and the belief that mental illness is a sign of weakness and will be harmful to their profession. In addition, there is the stigma that they feel from their co-workers and leaders that they are somehow different or weak. There is fear of job loss, or that those at home, in their extended family, friends, and the community they serve may not understand what they're going through and they're afraid it may affect their ability to take charge in situations when needed.

She also says a lack of resources, time, constricted financial budgets, and the belief that treatment may not work can be some of the barriers keeping first responders from seeking treatment.

That being said, many police departments and first responder agencies across the country are providing resources to employees aimed explicitly at mental health.

The St. Cloud Police Department is one of them.

SCPD's Officer Wellness Program encompasses a variety of resources for officers to get the right support mentally and physically.

Mushatt says, "Our officers are our most valuable asset, and if we don't focus on making sure that we're healthy mentally and physically, then I can't expect we're going to put a good product out on the street."

The program hosts speakers on a range of topics including stress and finances, a mental health professional and a Peer Support Team of twenty trained officers available to help.

Mushatt explains the significance of having officer to officer support.

"We want to just be there for our officers. Again, they're our most valuable asset, and not just administratively, but, to this community. They're there when people rely on them every day. So we just want to make sure that they're healthy and someone takes care of them as they're taking care of everybody else."

Sickler says critical incident stress management debriefings following a traumatic event are strongly encouraged for officers and first responders, which is something the St. Cloud Police Department's Officer Wellness Program also includes.

Sickler added that because of the risks they face in the course of duty, first responders might experience symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder such as re-experiencing the trauma, intrusive memories and thoughts, flashbacks, nightmares, hyper-arousal, and avoidance. Depression, anxiety, substance abuse and addiction are all things to watch out for.

A law aimed at helping first responders with their mental health was put into effect this past January. It classifies things like PTSD, depression, and anxiety as a work-related illness to make it easier for them to get mental health treatment. Representative Nick Zerwas says he wrote the bill, because, "I had heard from so many police officers and firefighters who are really struggling, and when you look at first responders suicide rates that this is an ongoing, real, problem." Zerwas added that "Prior to this law, every time a firefighter or police officer reached out for help, attorneys got involved and said, prove that you got your PTSD from work."

For the agencies that don't have an officer wellness program, or an employee assistance program, which gives free access to mental health help, there is another avenue.

The Code Green Campaign is a national group dedicated to getting help to first responders at a local level. The Code Green Campaign has first responders talk with others in their field who have been through the same situations.

Chairman of the National Volunteer Fire Council Steve Hirsch says police, firefighters, and paramedics don't have to deal with depression and other issues on their own. "There are resources there that can help them; there's no reason to take their own life, use alcohol, or take it out on their families."

Sickler says families can be of great assistance to their partners, family members, and friends by being patient and being there to listen, but she says, only if they are willing. She says just be willing to spend time with them, because, "Forcing someone to talk can sometimes make things worse."

She says, "Silence is O.K. and can go a long way in making them feel calm and safe."

Participating in a regular physical activity together can help them get rid of pent-up physical energy that is tied to unmanaged emotions.

Also, "Keep the structure at home. Structure provides stability and comfort. As the loved one, take care of yourself and practice self-care, this not only models good behavior, but it allows you to be there for them."

If you are having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. It is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Online chat is also available by clicking here.

KNSI reporters Myah Christenson and Jake Judd also contributed to this story.

Thank you to Commander Brett Mushatt of the St. Cloud Police Department, Lynette Sickler, Representative Nick Zerwas and Steve Hirsch, Chairman of the National Volunteer Fire Council for their contributions to this story.

A special thank you goes out to our first responders for answering the call for help whenever and wherever it is needed.

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