5 Investigates: A Silent Crisis - Building a Regional Peer Support Group

Published: Sep. 29, 2023 at 5:50 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 returning to Buckhannon with an update on the department’s progress toward improving mental health access.

Buckhannon’s Fire Chief, J.B. Kimble, is taking an active role in getting his department and others some much needed relief.

Kimble says many people in his line of work don’t know what to do with their trauma.

“It becomes a full glass, and at some point in time, that full glass will flow over. When that happens, you’re talking about suicide, you’re talking about divorce, you’re talking about alcoholism, people on drugs. When you get to that point, the system is broken, and we don’t want it to get to that point,” Kimble said.

In July’s installment of A Silent Crisis, 5 investigates spoke with Battalion 1 Consultants and First Responder Coaching.

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

Together, they establish a play book with emergency departments that teach healthy ways to cope with trauma.

These organizations have since met with local leaders in Elkins, Weston, and Buckhannon.

Battalion 1′s Senior Consultant C.J. Dickinson says seeing support from Buckhannon’s city council gives him hope.

“The leadership that we’ve experienced here in the meeting is phenomenal. There’s a distinct commitment from the fire department’s leadership as well as the mayor to support mental health and improve for everybody in the community moving forward,” said Dickinson.

These organizations say they want to build a relationship with these West Virginia communities.

First Responder Coaching’s CEO Jennifer Anderson says in order to implement a successful mental health program, they need to understand the culture first-hand.

“It was important for us to come down because we don’t want a cookie cutter approach. You want to be able to create program that will fit into your community and serve you well. A piece of paper just tacked onto the wall is not getting to serve anyone well,” Anderson said.

Anderson says this initial meeting is the first of many.

The current plan is to train first responders in Buckhannon, Elkins and Weston how they can help each other with mental health.

This peer support group is not a fix all solution but will give them essential tools when mental health intervention is necessary.

Kimble says he appreciates the support from local government as they begin to build the roadmaps toward better mental health assistance.

“The city council is behind us on this. They’re all about taking care of our employees and our volunteers, so you know it’s going to be a big undertaking, but the regional concept is the best route because there’s not enough people here in each agency to take care of themselves,” Kimble said.

However, Kimble says many departments are not as fortunate.

Although these departments are tethered to their communities, many local governments struggle to even keep them operational, making mental health less of a priority.

“Over 90 percent of the fire departments in West Virginia are pure volunteer fire departments. Those VFDs and a lot of career departments don’t have the support of the local government to put in place a pure, helpful mental wellness program,” Kimble said.

Kimble says he hopes creating a successful peer support group in this region will inspire more people to pursue avenues for mental health assistance for their first responders.

“We didn’t want to start out too large. We wanted to start small so we could get a good foundation, and like I said we want to be the tip of the spear. Hopefully we can progress this, not only regionally, but statewide,” Kimble said.

Anderson says it’s an honor to be a part of helping move this conversation forward and that she’s hopeful real change may come out of it.

“I think knowing the state itself of West Virginia has some challenges around the mental health response in the first responder community. This is the tipping point. This is an opportunity for Buckhannon and the surrounding counties to build a programs that is successful,” said Anderson.

“While this may have a ripple effect for mental health amongst first responders in our communities, Chief Kimble says changes needs to happen on the legislative level.

West Virginia state code does not currently require employers of first responders to provide them with coverage for post traumatic stress disorder.

“We also have to look at the state level and talk to the legislature about possibly making it a ‘shall’ in the worker’s comp that if members of fire departments, EMS, and police are diagnosed with PTSD from job related incidents that they get help for that,” Kimble said.