AP NEWS

Local first responders to get mental health services

March 10, 2019
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Huntington police officers, firefighters and Cabell County EMS workers respond to an overdose on 6th Avenue in October 2018. Huntington is in the process of rolling out a program seeking to improve mental health for first responders in the face of overwhelming overdose cases.

HUNTINGTON — Police and firefighters in Huntington will no longer have their mental health neglected thanks to a program that seeks to improve self-care, training and other resources.

In October, Huntington was named a winner of the 2018 U.S. Mayor’s Challenge, receiving $1 million to provide in-house mental health services to first responders on the front lines of the opioid epidemic.

The goal is to combat compassion fatigue, which are feelings of depleted empathy in the face of overwhelming overdose calls.

The nationwide competition encouraged city leaders to propose “bold, inventive” ideas to confront their city’s toughest problems, providing finalists with funds for a six-month implementation phase.

Huntington City Council recently approved Mayor Steve Williams to enter into a grant agreement between the city and the Bloomberg Family Foundation to begin widespread implementation of the program.

Winning the grant on the national stage is a sign that Huntington is shifting away from the epicenter of the opioid crisis to the epicenter of the solution, Williams said. He touted the 41 percent decline in overdoses in 2018 as a positive sign the crisis might be subsiding.

However, the crisis exposed a lack of needed mental health services for first responders, who were overwhelmed with overdose calls and deaths.

“They are the ones that saved everybody, and they are having to do it day in and day out,” Williams said. “They experienced trauma of overdoses day in and day out and experienced the trauma of death and families being split apart.”

To solve this, Huntington will begin to roll out a program to embed certified mental health professionals into police and fire departments. These “wellness coordinators” engage first responders in creating self-care tools and training to improve their personal and professional well-being. This will also improve their interactions with overdose victims and attitudes toward substance abuse.

In surveys conducted during the program’s six-month implementation phase, only 37 percent of Huntington’s first responders report having adequate resources to do their jobs well.

The wellness coordinators will work with first responders to develop self-care that is most helpful to them. This could include massages, yoga, discounted getaways and family cooking activities and pottery classes.

Even though the Bloomberg Family Foundation grant belongs to Huntington, the city has agreed to work with county EMS workers in some mental health activities, said Connie Priddy, compliance officer with Cabell County EMS and coordinator of the Huntington Quick Response Team. The team travels along on overdose calls to encourage addicted individuals to enter into drug counseling and other services.

“We are getting ready to work with them, and we are in the planning stages of that right now,” Priddy said. “Prior to that, because we were a county agency and they were city, the EMS portion had not been included. But we are thrilled to start working with them on a lot of those activities.”

Priddy said she had previously looked into mental health services for EMS workers and was surprised to find the lack of quality services.

“In my mind I thought I could find 100 resources, and I started researching online and making calls and people were telling me, ‘We really don’t have anything in place,’” she said.

Cabell County EMS has access to a critical stress management program, which provides counselors following tragedies or mass casualty incidents. However, there wasn’t anything available for EMTs and paramedics involving day-to-day stressors.

“They probably have been overlooked and underappreciated. Now with a lot of the focus with what’s going on in the field out there, people do realize this is a tough job and a job they love,” Priddy said. “But they need resources just like any other job.”

Travis Crum is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He may be reached by phone at 304-526-2801.