‘You Can’t Unsee What You Have Seen’: NC First Responders Focus on Mental Health

Wilmington NC Fire Department

Krys Merryman

Star-News, Wilmington, N.C.


May 11—All jobs can be stressful, but then there are jobs like being a first responder, where you see and experience things on a daily basis that most people never do.

That’s why addressing and maintaining mental health is so important for first responders.

New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Lt. Jerry Brewer said unfortunately, deputies run into traumatic events often. He told a story about an autistic kid who walked outside into a pond and drowned.

“Our deputies responded, and it was very traumatic,” Brewer said. “If our deputies are deployed to a critical incident, we encourage them to talk about it. Talk to a peer who has gone through a traumatic event themselves.”

According to Brewer, the sheriff’s office also offers an employee assistance program and peer-to-peer support. He said mental health support has come a long way.

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“Twenty years ago, we would have been told to just go back to work if something traumatic happened at a call,” Brewer said. “Now, it’s a minimum of two hours of talking, eating since it helps people relax, and then it’s determined if they can go back to work or not but it depends on the situation.”

Brewer said if they want to go home and speak to their own doctor, the office puts that into place for the deputy and everything gets taken care of.

Another first responder job that can be taxing on mental health is that of a paramedic.

“The culture has changed a lot,” said Karen Miksch, New Hanover Regional Medical Center public relations outreach educator. “The biggest thing for me is your partner is looking out for you.”

In first responder jobs, you could be with your work partner more than your spouse at home, Miksch said, so it’s important that they look out for one another. She said they always check in on the paramedics after each bad call and multiple bad calls in a short amount of time could be really hard on them.

“Many years ago, it was a ‘just suck it up’ attitude,” Miksch said. “The world as a whole is understanding that it’s not normal, the things we see, and giving more support.”

It can be multiple calls piled on, and then someone can get triggered by a simpler call that brings all these feelings to the forefront, Miksch said.

It’s important to encourage just talking about things.

Miksch also wanted to highlight 911 telecommunicators who she said are often the “unseen heroes.” StarNews previously reported that 911 dispatchers are often the forgotten first responders, but are crucial to emergency services.

“It’s okay to need a ‘time out,'” said Scott Goodyear, division chief for emergency services for New Hanover Regional Medical Center. “Having resilience, coping mechanisms, eating properly, exercising, and maintaining a work-life balance are all important to mental health.”

Goodyear said the caveat to that is paramedics see a lot of things that can affect a person’s psyche, and the general public doesn’t see those things on a regular basis.

According to Goodyear, a chaplain is provided through the hospital and that person will ride with the emergency crews sometimes.

“What we learn over time is that you can’t unsee what you have seen but you can try and cope with it in a positive way,” Goodyear said. “We educate our employees to be more open about their feelings.”

If a paramedic has a bad call and needs to be taken out of service for a little bit to process what just happened, then that’s okay, Goodyear said.

“We want to leave a footprint with mental health better than how we found it,” Goodyear said. “Our goal is to include our employees’ families also, so they have a better understanding of what’s going on. Every situation is different, and the hospital has been proactive in looking after staff.”

The hospital also has an employee assistance program, so in time of need, an employee can seek counseling services wherever they would like to.

“We try to make it better each day for each individual,” Goodyear said.

Wilmington Police Department Public Information Officer Lt. Leslie Irving said mental health is very important to the department.

If an officer is involved in a critical incident, then the police chief will send him or her to The FMRT Group, which is psychological services for public safety employees, in addition to the peer support program and the city of Wilmington employee assistance program, according to Irving.

“We believe if an employee is healthy mentally and physically, then he or she can perform his or her job effectively and serve the citizens of Wilmington,” Irving said.

The Wilmington Fire Department utilizes the same city mental health resources as the police department.

“Each person has their own way of dealing with mental health issues,” said Wilmington Fire Department Headquarters Capt. of Engine 4 Chuck Bower. “It varies from incident to incident.”

Bower said the fire department also does a Resources for Resilience program to promote mindfulness and train individuals to identify when they are stressed and how to recover in those moments by staying focused in the moments of distress.

Resources for Resilience teaches exercises like grounding yourself, doing some heavy work like working out, pushing against a wall, and singing or humming as a part of “rapid reset” and decompressing in stressful situations — being mindful.

“Sometimes a firefighter will come back from a call and say they are alright, but don’t act like it,” Bower said. “The program helps individuals when they may be stressed but they don’t think they are and provide them with tools to destress, tools to reset, and dealing with stressful situations in a positive way to result in a positive outcome.”

To learn more about Resources and Resilience training visit resourcesforresilience.com.

Reporter Krys Merryman can be reached at 910-343-2272 or kmerryman@gannett.com.


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