Police, other first responders putting a focus on maintaining mental health

WORCESTER COUNTY, Md. – A recent bill signed by President Joe Biden is opening up a conversation about law enforcement officers, first responders, and mental health. The Confidentiality Opportunities for Peer Support Counseling Act encourages a focus on mental health and peer counseling programs, and confidentiality. It also directs the Department of Justice to create best practices guidelines.

A Changing Conversation

Mental health hasn’t always been at the forefront of conversation for law enforcement and other first responders. “I remember when I got into the fire department in 2003. It was kind of this mentality that you tough it out, you stay strong, and get through it,” said Ocean City Fire Department Public Information Officer Ryan Whittington. “We portray this super human aspect to young kids so that they want to grow up to be firefighters and protect our community. But at the same time, our hearts, our minds are no different.”

But, in recent years, agencies have put a special focus on mental health. “Some of these calls are very traumatic, and we want to make sure that they have the coping skills for their mental health,” said Worcester County Sheriff Matt Crisafulli. “We want them to be ready for duty. We want them to be ready for their families at home. We want them to have enjoyable lives at home.”

Superheroes Need Support, Too

Local law enforcement says without strong and reliable mental health resources, first responders wouldn’t be able to be there when we need them the most. “They deal with a lot. When they’re out in the field on a daily basis dealing with traumatic incidents, we owe it to our first responders to provide them with resources and tools,” said Sheriff Crisafulli.

Police and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty, according to the CDC. Plus, EMS providers are 1.39 times more likely to die by suicide than members of the public. The Ocean City Fire Department says responding to traumatic calls can have a significant impact on first responders’ mental health. “We see people on their worst days. We see the worst that you can see – a dead person, we work with people who are alive who are asking ‘Am I going to be okay?’ as you’re cutting them out of a car,” said Whittington.

COVID-19 Adds Concerns

Add a global pandemic onto the stressors that come with the job, and that makes for a bigger need for support, according to local first responders. “We’re seeing an increase in mental health calls in our profession. I think that dealing with the cases with mental health also has an effect on our law enforcement,” said Sheriff Crisafulli.

Whittington says first responders’ COVID-19 concerns are ones that everyone has been dealing with for the past 20 months: job security, seamless virtual education for their children, and the risk of contracting the virus. “It’s been well over a year and a half that we’re out here on the front lines of the pandemic, and we’re facing some of those struggles as people here on Delmarva in our own homes,” said Whittington.

Network of Support

The Worcester County Sheriff’s Office is home to a team of seven deputies trained for peer support. “They’re seeing the same types of calls together. They can relate more to each other in working together to try to help themselves,” said Sheriff Crisafulli. “We want them to be well-protected as they’re protecting our residents out here on a daily basis. Mental health for first responders is critical in today’s world.”

At OCFD, there’s also a team of peers, about 10 to 15 members strong. Whittington says they work under a trained clinician to provide that vital mental health safety net. “Peer support has a very strict confidentiality that we have to abide by. It’s abide by it, or get fired. So, we take our peer support confidentiality very seriously,” he said. “They work beside you every day. They know who you are. They know your family’s names. They know where you live. They might know your history and your background.”

Whether you’re a first responder or not, taking care of your mental health is important. If you or a loved one might be struggling, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-TALK.

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