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Local first responders receive mental health support

First Responders
MGN Online
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IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (KIFI/KIDK) - The Idaho Falls City Council approved a contract between Creekside Counseling and first responders on Monday. Creekside Counseling is providing Critical Incident Debriefings on an ‘as needed’ basis, as determined by the city, and will be facilitated free of charge.

This approval by the City Council puts into writing a formal agreement that has been ongoing for roughly six years between Creekside Counseling and Idaho Falls Police Department. The services for first responders first began under Captain McBride after a police officer died by suicide. The Idaho Falls Fire Department has entered into the agreement within the last 18 months after a national uptick in firefighter suicides. The agreement with City Council has been in the works for roughly one year and is now coming to fruition.

A critical incident, as defined by the professional services agreement as approved by the City Council is “an event in which a first responder, while engaged in the line of duty, sustains, witnesses, or is in close proximity to a sudden death, severe physical injury, or an emergency that poses a high likelihood of severe physical injury or death to any person.”

“There was that triple fatality traffic accident not too long ago,” Idaho Falls Police Chief Johnson said. “You had firefighters, Idaho Falls Police officers, Bonneville County deputies, all responding to that same scene. And so we did a critical incident debriefing for that. If you talk to the officers who responded to that, they will tell you that was the worst traffic accident they’ve been to in their career. And the things they had to do at that scene, one of the officers jumped into the canal and it was literally, I mean, just what they had to do there was just hard. And they actually said we need a debriefing after that. And Creekside came to do it and you had sheriff’s deputies, police officers, dispatchers, everyone, they’re doing that debriefing together so Creekside works with all of us. They care about their entire community.”

Creekside Counseling recognizes the trauma overload many of our dedicated public safety personnel encounter in the line of duty and the need for mental health care for these individuals.

Janet Allen is the clinical director of Creekside Counseling and says they provide a wide array of services for first responders.

“If there’s been an infant death or an officer involved shooting or something really, particularly graphic and difficult, they will ask us to come in and we debrief those incidents with all of the first responders who participated,” Allen said. “So there might be law enforcement, EMS, fire, ambulance, dispatch even, and allow them the wherewithal to talk through what they did, what they saw, what they heard, what they thought, how they reacted, and the most important piece is what the hardest part was.”

The agreement states Creekside will offer annual or semi-annual wellness interviews to Idaho Falls first responders. Wellness interviews will give first responders the opportunity to engage in a conversation about their individual mental health with trained providers on a one-on-one basis.

According to the agreement, “Training topics may include self care, stress management, recognizing signs and symptoms of distress, conflict resolution, giving and receiving feedback, personal and professional resilience, healthy coping mechanisms, effective communication, emotional regulation, depression, anxiety, addiction, PTI, relationships, and burnout.”

“What we don’t want is first responders to stay stuck in the trauma that they’ve experienced,” Allen said. “We want them to be able to move through it so they’ll be ready for the requirements of the job. We know that if they just stack up or store those experiences, then they can develop depression, anxiety disorders, addiction or post traumatic stress disorder.”

In order to establish a trusting relationship with our first responders, Creekside staff have engaged in ride-alongs with police and fire personnel. Creekside also offers yoga for first responders and Allen's staff participates in leadership training.

“It’s all about team building and our main focus, I think, is to support those professionals who work hard everyday to keep us safe,” Allen said. “In order to do that, to be considered an ally and form an alliance, we have to have trust established and we work really hard everyday to help them see us as partners in what they do.”

Allen says the ride alongs allow therapists to become more culturally-informed of the daily life stressors our first responders face in the field.

“We’re trying to create a holistic approach where we understand the culture, we become more specialized in meeting their needs, we understand them and know them on a first name basis,” Allen said. “We want to be on their speed dial where if they have a problem with an adolescent or their marriage is suffering or there’s one particular person in their department that they’re concerned about, that they see Creekside as a vital partner, so that we can really work toward collective safety, health, and wellness for the community of Idaho Falls and for the first responders who serve the community of Idaho Falls.”

Idaho Falls Fire Chief Duane Nelson says their contract with Creekside provides mental health training and assistance before and after critical incidents.

“Fire personnel and EMS personnel are about 10 to 15% more likely to develop mental health issues and be put at risk of suicide than the general public,” Chief Nelson said.

He says the critical incident debriefings give firefighters a much needed and valued opportunity to unload the stressors they encounter in the field and ensure their ability to rebound from trauma and go on serving the public. He says the services Creekside Counseling provides under the agreement gives them a healthy coping skill in dealing with trauma.

“It gives them an avenue to be able to learn how to become self-aware of those issues," Chief Nelson said. "It puts things into place within the department with trained personnel as peer staff as a trust team of individuals that they work with, that can help recognize when someone is having a problem.”

Chief Nelson says Creekside provides top-down services where they handle incident debriefings, establish a trust team that is trained to recognize and know how to talk to personnel who are exhibiting mental health warning signs, and one-on-one counseling to support first responders in a private setting.

“Anytime that you can increase your mental health and your resiliency through training and expertise like this, it adds that layer of a long, healthy career, not only here at work but it adds to that increased livelihood,” Chief Nelson said.

Chief Nelson says fire chiefs across the country are now having to recognize the stigma that comes along with mental health and the skewed perception that asking for help is a sign of weakness.

“Mental health effects everybody. Firefighters and EMS providers, all of our first responders on the frontline do deal with these problems,” Chief Nelson said. “That stigma is there and the community looks at us in their greatest time of need. But it’s important for us as fire chiefs across the country to recognize that this is an issue and begin to change that culture.”

Idaho Falls Police Chief Bryce Johnson says the culture around seeking help is a double-edged sword within law enforcement because there used to be a reluctance within the force to seek out help for fear of formal sanctions being written against an officer that admits they may be struggling with suicidal ideation.

“The fear was, well how can I have this person out on the street doing police duties if they’re struggling emotionally in some way? And what we found over time is that that is not helpful,” Chief Johnson said.

He says if the department gives negative sanctions to officers admitting they need help, it is not protecting the community or the officers, but rather preventing the officer from getting the mental health support they need to fully perform the duties of their job.

“And then you have those crises play out in the community sometime later,” Chief Johnson said, “Police officers, we’re supposed to protect everybody else, right? It’s our role and our duty to protect and take care of everybody,” Chief Johnson said.

He says police administrators across the country need to be taking care of their officers’ mental health in order for those duties to be fulfilled.

“What we’re doing as a society is, we’re putting these people in situations that we know will damage them as humans. And yet, we expect them to do their job. And then we wonder why things may not go perfectly out in the field, when we have a damaged human being that we’ve put out there to take care of the biggest problems we have in society,” Chief Johnson said.

Chief Johnson says the average American may encounter 2 or 3 traumatic experiences in their lifetime, whereas law enforcement officers encounter 800 traumatic events throughout the course of their career.

“If you look at it statistically, police officers are far more likely to kill themselves than to be killed by a suspect,” Chief Johnson said, “The number one thing that kills police officers is suicide and it’s not even close to the number two thing that kills police officers.”

Chief Johnson said the staff at Creekside also provide group training and mental health first aid to the police department. He says he hopes this partnership will help reduce suicide rates and help his officers be healthy and resilient so they can provide quality services to the public for the entirety of their career.

The chief says anonymous hotlines do not work as well for first responders. He says it is much more accepted within the force for a police officer to speak with a counselor than it has been in years past. He says in the past, the department brought in a therapist from Creekside Counseling into the police office for a day and the officers could voluntarily sign up for a time.

“We weren’t sure how useful that would be and what we found is that all the times available were taken as soon as they were available. People were jumping at the chance to go and talk to them,” Chief Johnson said.

Licensed therapists provide training presentations on building resiliency and growing through trauma. Their goal is to help our first responders work through emotionally and physically taxing situations they encounter on a daily basis.

Allen is setting up for next year that everyone in the department from leadership to administration, officers, and dispatch will participate in resiliency training and have the opportunity to get to know the counselors on an individual basis.

“The goal is that it will pave the way so that when they really need to make the call to us, we’ll be as responsive to them and their needs as they are to ours,” Allen said.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a brain condition that develops when a person is repeatedly exposed to dangerous situations and traumatic experiences. PTSD can manifest as hyper-vigilance, insomnia, flashbacks, nightmares, and an inability to decompress or transition from a heightened sense of anxiety. Some people learn how to live with PTSD but there are treatments available. Governor Little signed an agreement in 2019 that allowed PTSD to be recognized under workman’s compensation.

Allen believes people can learn to reset their brain after a traumatic experience and go beyond the trauma and grow from it, an experience she calls “Post Traumatic Growth”. Allen says this growth can help individuals “have a renewed commitment to their family, to have an open mind towards new ideas and activities, to learn to grow and expand.”

“Trauma really causes people to shrink and retract and growth is about moving through and moving forward and moving beyond,” Allen said. “We really want to sell this idea that you don’t just have to stay stuck in the psychological trauma of your experiences, but that you can actually be better because of them.”

One benefit of having this handshake agreement now in writing, as the police and fire chiefs both expressed, is that it will ensure this therapeutic avenue will be available to first responders into the future. The agreement will outlast any change of power including chiefs stepping down or being replaced and beyond.

“In our current political climate, we have a lot of additional pressure on our first responders, particularly law enforcement. And so their job is hard and arduous and very taxing on them and their families,” Allen said. “They do a good job, they show up, they’re well-trained, but to finally put this mental health component in place, I think is vital to their ability to thrive under an extraordinary set of stressful circumstances.”

Allen and Chief Johnson both say they hope this type of partnership between mental health providers and local first responders can spread nationwide in an effort to support our communities.

Article Topic Follows: Idaho Falls

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Chelsea Briar

Chelsea is a reporter and producer for Local News 8 and KIDK Eyewitness News 3.


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