5 Investigates: A Silent Crisis - Mental Help for First Responders

Published: Jul. 28, 2023 at 5:59 PM EDT
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BRIDGEPORT, W.Va (WDTV) - West Virginia’s EMS agencies are facing serious challenges, from a lack of funding to dwindling volunteerism.

There are a lot of issues, and easy answers don’t appear to be on the horizon.

In this installment of A Silent Crisis, we’re taking a closer look at mental help for first responders.

Fire chiefs from Elkins, Weston and Buckhannon are meeting with consultants and coaches to help them form a mental health coalition.

CJ Dickinson from Battalion 1 Consultants says his organization focuses on multiple levels of ways to improve fire departments.

But in recent years, he’s seen the growing need for mental health assistance for first responders.

“We don’t set our volunteers up for success on the mental health side. It’s a glossed over subject when they go to their initial training, and even our career staff as they’re coming up, we’re glossing over it, and we really need to make that shift and that change,” Dickinson said.

Battalion 1 Consultants is drafting plans for some procedural changes, like filing reports and tracking progress.

Dickinson says he’s glad to see leadership taking these crucial steps to improve the lives of their departments.

“It starts at the top, but it’s a two-way street. They have to show they care about their members for the newest guy on so he can have a 20-30 year career and not suffer needlessly,” Dickinson said.

As it stands right now, it’s difficult for departments to get assistance, like grants, on an individual basis.

Dickinson says regional collaboration like this makes that process more effective.

In an interview in February, Buckhannon Fire Chief JB Kimble, one of the chiefs leading this charge, described West Virginia’s mental health crisis amongst first responders like trying to put out a fire without any water.

“To come find out, we were way behind times. The whole state of West Virginia is way behind the times with mental health for first responders, and there truly was no avenue to take to get assistance. We can all tell when people are having problems. We just don’t know what to do about it once we know and that’s the difficult part,” Kimble said.

Now, Kimble and the chiefs of Elkins and Weston are attempting to change that by forming a peer support group.

Dickinson says movements like this can help change the culture around mental health for first responders.

“Its definitely a cultural shift. Behavior and attitude drive culture, so how do we modify attitude? It’s derived from your own personal experience. If we change it to the here and now how to improve for tomorrow, they might change that attitude,” Dickinson said.

One of the other organizations involved in this endeavor is First Responder Coaching.

Jennifer Anderson, Founder and CEO of First Responder Coaching, got involved when her husband, a police officer, went through a mental health crisis of his own.

Anderson says first responders need help for the compounded emotional trauma that builds up on a daily basis, which can expose itself in everyday conversation.

“Often times we listen to, respond, react, or we listen for just the words people are saying. In coaching, we’re taught to listen on three different levels, not just what’s being said, but what’s not being said and how is it being said,” Anderson said.

Anderson says rating on a scale of 1-10 with someone dealing with anxiety or PTSD was an effective start to open these conversations up with her husband.

“Above a 7, remove yourself from situation safely and call me. When it got to 8-9, he had to call me because I didn’t want him to feel like nobody was listening or experiencing,” said Anderson.

Since then, she’s helped to implement programs for other first responders, like tracking mental wellbeing every quarter.

Anderson says coaching first responders on how to care for one another can help change the culture over time.

“We’re not taking 5 minutes to decompress and have a difficult conversation. What is it? You need to help change what’s going on. So observe, be vulnerable, engage in different conversations, ask the powerful questions. That’s what’s really going to help change the culture of our first responders,” Anderson said.

Below are the first six installments of A Silent Crisis:

5 News Investigates: A Silent Crisis Pt. 1

5 News Investigates: A Silent Crisis - Buckhannon Fire Department

5 Investigates: A Silent Crisis - The Price of Training

5 Investigates: A Silent Crisis - Anmoore Fire & EMS

5 Investigates: A Silent Crisis - First Responders and Mental Health

5 Investigates: A Silent Crisis - Training the Next Generation