Pittsburgh program provides free mental health help to first responders | Health | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Pittsburgh program provides free mental health help to first responders

click to enlarge Pittsburgh program provides free mental health help to first responders
Photo: Courtesy of Village Center for Holistic Therapy
The scene of an accident or crime can be mentally taxing for all parties involved, including first responders. In Pittsburgh, a new program is providing group mental health services for first responders and public safety professionals to ensure that the people whose jobs are to protect the public are also taking care of their own health.

Don Brucker, chief deputy fire marshal in Allegheny County, participated in the program’s pilot last fall. He says he loved the program, and adds that the first responder and public safety community needs to be more mindful about mental health.

“Let’s say the 911 center takes a bad call,” Brucker says. “‘Oh, that’s nothing, I’ve done this call a hundred times.’ Well, that’s great, and maybe you can deal with it. But I can also tell you that the person who brags about it, is the person that probably needs that class the most.”

The program, Mindful Connections for Public Safety, run by Village Center for Holistic Therapy and Awaken Pittsburgh, has received grant funding for six nine-week classes through 2023. All classes are free to participants.

Kristy Weidner, a licensed clinical social worker and co-owner of Village Center, and Stephanie Romero, founder and executive director for Awaken Pittsburgh, co-facilitate the classes. The courses, one of which is currently running, represent one of multiple initiatives financed by recent grant funding. The Mary Hillman Jennings Foundation awarded them $75,000 for December 2021 through November 2022, and another $70,000 for December 2022 through November 2023. A $38,000 grant from the Staunton Farm Foundation, received in late 2020, financed the pilot program.

About nine people participated in the pilot, some appearing in-person and others attending virtually. The current class, all virtual and close to finishing, has about 15 people, including firefighters, police officers, and EMS workers. The program has primarily found participants by going through internal city of Pittsburgh peer groups but are now also reaching out to organizations separate from city government. Any first responders or public safety professionals interested in joining one of the upcoming classes can reach out.

“We do intentionally keep the class size 25 and under because we use a trauma-sensitive approach,'' Romero says. “We really want to be able to hear each individual.”

The classes follow a set structure, with exercises focused on practices like breathing and discussion questions such as, “What does it feel like in your body when you’re stressed out?” Romero and Weidner say they bring different skillsets to their pairing.

“This being so structured and curriculum-based, I really come at the classes from a therapeutic approach,” Weidner says. “And I want to do a lot of processing, and I want to make these connections. And so we’ve been getting a balance between the two of us of how important both pieces of those are. And that’s what makes our combination unique.”

The programs included wide age ranges, according to Romero. This means that sometimes in meetings, an older person acts as a mentor for someone younger. At one point, Romero says an older man explained to a younger man struggling with anger issues how he calmed and controlled his anger over the years.

“It was actually really wonderful and moving,” Romero says. Discussing, processing, and treating trauma can be difficult for anyone, but Romero and Weidner have learned what it’s like for first responders and public safety professionals. Only one person in the pilot program had done therapy before, Weidner says.

“There’s just such a stigma around mental health in this population in particular,” she adds. “One of the first responders described to me, ‘We wear our trauma as a badge of honor.’ And then, asking for help is so stigmatized because they worry about their status at work, they worry about if their partner is gonna trust if they’re OK in a dangerous situation, if they’re expressing that they’re suffering from any anxiety, depression, PTSD.”

Brucker has spent a lot of time observing and thinking about trauma.

“You don’t ask for it,” Brucker says. “It’s something that happens to you.”

Brucker adds that it’s important to discuss mental health. Since participating in the pilot, he’s been asking people he doesn't know well, including people he meets on the street at a scene: “How’s your mental health?” And while he doesn’t need an answer, he does want to know if the person has ever been asked that before. He says he’s done this to more than 20 people and only one said they had.

Still, he has seen improvement in the first responder community concerning the discussion around mental health.

“We talk about this stuff openly more so now than ever, which is just phenomenal,” Brucker says. “I mean, I’m overjoyed with that.”

Even though his class ended last year, it hasn’t really left him or the group, he says.

“Everybody in there has grown. I know that,” Brucker says. “And we continue to communicate on a semi-regular basis.”

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