As 21 WFMJ continues to look into how mental illness impacts our communities, the mental health of our first responders is a major concern as they witness trauma daily.

That's why Mahoning Valley agencies have had programs in place since 2016 to help them work through the scenes they face, allowing them to 'Take the Moment,' while working to end the stigma over mental health in our first responders.

"The #1 person who's going to take care of you is you," said Lieutenant Tom Collins with Austintown Police Department. "You need to look deep and say, 'Listen, this is not right what I'm experiencing and feeling. I am a strong advocate for seeking mental health care."

First responders like Officer Collins know just how helpful the Mahoning Valley Critical Incident Stress and Management Team can be after witnessing traumatic scenes. He is now part of the program and helps other officers and first responders who are experiencing mental illness.

"We want to make sure the first responders are healthy and that they're able to return to the line of duty," said Katie Cretella, Director of Clinical Services with Trumbull County Mental Health & Recovery Board. 

Police officers, firefighters, EMS crews, doctors, and nurses often face an increased risk of mental illness due to the nature of their jobs. If not managed properly, first responders can experience psychological disorders including PTSD, depression, drug abuse, etc. 

"Critical incidents can be multiple different things," explained Michelle Werth, Clinical Director with Mahoning County Mental Health & Recovery Board. "For example, a death of a child, witnessing a severe injury, a coworker getting injured or seeing a tragic accident."

The Mahoning Valley Critical Incident Stress and Management Team offers its services after a traumatic event when requested by departments in Mahoning and Trumbull Counties. The team promotes self-care and helps mitigate the impact of traumatic events. Werth and Cretella agree the demand of the services ebbs and flows and it's their goal to spread awareness about the programs offered. 

"This takes place through a peer-lead approach, which consists of a mental health professional and then a police officer, a firefighter or an EMT," Cretella explained. "That's any time a department feels they were impacted by an event.

The type of interventions offered includes pre-incident preparation, small group interactive sessions, large group informational sessions and one-on-one peer support. 

The goal of CISM include:

  1. Stabilization- help the individuals to feel grounded & secure
  2. Symptom reduction- reduce the physiological, cognitive, and emotional impact of trauma or distress on the individual
  3. Return to adaptive functioning- teach coping strategies to deal with trauma so the individual can resume duties
  4. Facilitation of access to continued care- link the individual to resources or continued care to facilitate recovery 

"You're going to experience physiological, psychological, and emotional trauma on the job," Officer Collins said. "The program will provide you some type of means of how to cope with it, like eating better and exercising."

First responders are also looking to fight the stigma of being seen as weak or unfit for the job if they seek help.

"If you're unable to maintain control of that situation and you're weak as a result, then you're going to be weak in handling the situation both as an employee and at home," Officer Collins added. "So yes, there's a huge stigma as a result of it."

Officer Collins added modern-day police training now teaches how to cope with mental health effects from the job. 

"The average individual will experience maybe 2 or 3 traumatic experiences in their life where in our profession we're experiencing 500-600 of them," he added. "It's repetitiveness of just being reminded of some of the most horrific scenes that are exposed to us in society."

Through diffusing sessions, it's the program's goal to get first responders back to the line of duty.

"We want to grow and offer more services to our first responders in the community," Werth added. "We're looking to provide more training and more education to first responders."

"We are working on our marketing and education around what our team does so that more departments will reach out to us," Cretella added.

Similar services are also offered in Columbiana County. Contact Kelli Hephner at [email protected] to learn more.

Organizations in Mahoning and Trumbull Counties looking to inquire about the sessions should call 211.