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Post Bulletin
     January 16, 2019      #22-16 PB1
More and more, agencies are starting to address the stress that is part of everyday life for first responders. Monthly wellness checks and peer counseling are among the programs made available to police, firefighters and others.

Post Bulletin file / Andrew Link

Who responds to first responders' mental health

By Emily Cutts

Changes to the state’s worker’s compensation statute are being seen as another piece in the puzzle to support first responders’ mental health.

The statute now states that post-traumatic stress disorder is an occupational illness. The change may make filing for worker’s compensation easier for first responders and emergency personnel suffering from PTSD.

But many agencies are trying to address the stress first responders face on a routine basis.

The Olmsted County Sheriff’s Office provides a monthly mental health and wellness check-in for employees, according to Capt. Scott Behrns. The check-in gives employees a chance to sit down with a licensed psychologist and talk about where they are at mentally.

“They make sure that you are doing OK. And if you really, really struggle, they will find immediate resources for you,” Behrns said. Behrns said the check-ins started about a year ago under Sheriff Kevin Torgerson and Chief Deputy Terry Waletzki.

“Our office has really stepped forward in the past years, recognizing the mental health aspect of the job, and that’s good,” Behrns said.

Torgerson said the office has been doing a number of things to help employees take care of their mental health. The sheriff’s office, as well as the Rochester Police Department, have started peer counseling and peer mentorship programs, Torgerson said.

The monthly check-ins are provided by a firm out of the Twin Cities that also does the office’s initial psychological evaluations. After speaking with the county’s human resources department as well the administration, the Sheriff’s Office was able to get a budget that would allow for every employee with the office to have a check-in if they felt the need, Togergerson said.

Critical Incident Stress Debriefings

First responders across the region also have a resource in Southeastern Minnesota Emergency Medical Services (SEEMS.) The program’s mission is to ensure that quality patient care is available throughout the 11-county area by maximizing the response capabilities of emergency medical personnel.

The program provides critical incident stress debriefings free of charge to agencies following crisis or traumatic events to give first responders an opportunity to process the recent call.

“If you can get past that first step of stepping in the door and saying those first few words, then you will hear when you are done talking that there are other people that feel exactly the same and you are not alone,” Behrns said of the debriefings. “That is the hardest part of PTSD, thinking, ‘I’m alone, I’ve got to do this by myself.’ You don’t have to.”

Cathy Anderson, the education coordinator for SEEMs, describes the debriefings as realigning the cogs of the mind.

“If we imagine our mind as a series of cogs that propel us through the day, as a responder, you might get a critical incident and that incident kind of disengages those cogs for a moment, and they just sit and spin,” Anderson said noting that emergency responders don’t necessarily have the ability to step away for a period of time following a call.

“Defusings and debriefings don’t take away the pain of the event. They don’t dismiss the responses of the emergency services,” Anderson said. “What it does, by talking them through this and sharing together, it kind of aligns those cogs back up so that they can keep moving forward.”

The debriefings aren’t counseling, nor are they psychotherapy, but rather a facilitated conversation.

A retired chaplain, Floyd O’Bryan said the debriefings give participants three skills; self-assessment, listening, and the ability to build back up one’s resiliency.

In the last six to seven years, the average number of requests for debriefings has more than doubled from 13 to 30, Anderson said.

“I don’t think that it has to do with an increased number of critical incidents, but I think it has everything to do with an increased awareness that it is OK,” Anderson said. “It is OK to get a debriefing. It is OK to admit that what we just went through was tough.”

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Emily Cutts