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First responders offering mental health support to others in the profession

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Posted at 2:00 PM, Mar 16, 2023

WARNER ROBBINS, Ga. — The America we know includes a support network from first responders. The America you may not know about is the trauma first responders experience on a daily basis.

Jared Law is a fire engineer in Warner Robins, Georgia. He was recently in a room with fellow first responders practicing how they’d help a colleague in need. He was asked to make up a traumatic scenario and chose a real one. It was a call about a child with autism who’d lost his first job and took his own life.

“I’ve been having a little bit of nightmares, having trouble getting something off my mind. There was nothing we could do. I’m having a hard time processing that,” Law said.

He said the discussion brought back a lot of feelings.

“You know, I’ve dealt with that already. I thought I’ve dealt with it. But then talking about it and going through it, I realize maybe I haven’t dealt with it," Law said.

First responders aren’t often brought up in discussions about mental health support. And yet they’re exceedingly in need. EMS providers are nearly 40% more likely to die by suicide than the general public. Firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.

Tyshon Reed is an assistant fire chief in Moultrie, Georgia. He sat in a room where dozens of firefighters, EMS providers, and law enforcement officers take a week from their shifts to become peer-to-peer counselors. The state of Georgia funds it. Georgia is one of a small but growing number of states putting dollars behind responders’ mental health.

“I’ve had personnel that have thrown away 20+-year careers because they didn’t know how to ask for help,” Reed said.

Two years ago, peer counselors in Georgia connected with more than 3,000 first responders. Last year, they reached 5,000. One state over, Alabama just became the first state to include peer support training in its curriculum for new recruits. The International Association of Fire Fighters says it's served more than 9,000 in the U.S. and Canada. It’s an evolving understanding of the perception of firefighters’ face— both within and beyond their departments.

“They think the fire department, we just fight fires. Most of them are EMS, vehicle wrecks, where you’re seeing all the nasty, real-world stuff,” Law said.

Law hopes sharing his feelings will help guide someone else through theirs.

“You see stuff that you don't want to see that you never thought you would have to see,” Law said. "If you're dealing with it, there's a good chance that somebody else is dealing with it, too."