After the robbery, when the last flames are doused, and when a patient’s bleeding has been stabilized — when the crisis is over, another struggle awaits many local emergency responders.
When they return home, paramedics, police officers, and firefighters must deal with post-traumatic stress.
That battle was a point of emphasis Feb. 28 as emergency personnel took part in a special mental health and PTSD training session.
June Knowlton, a lieutenant in the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs Police, and Janine Smalley, a VA patient safety manager, spoke on how to properly address colleagues’ stress as well as deal with people at the scene of an emergency who may be mentally ill.
MOVING PAST STIGMAS
Wellington personnel earned a certificate in mental health first aid by listening to Smalley’s presentation, which included group exercises such as putting mental and physical ailments in the order of how debilitating they can be to everyday life.
According to Smalley, 125 to 150 police officers each year take their own lives. That’s nearly three times more than the number of officers annually killed by felons.
“With a mental illness, you walk the same path over and over, and each time your footsteps make the path deeper,” she said. “You might be at work physically, but you’re not really at work. You’re always ready to leap the worst case scenario in your mind in a single bound.”
Forty percent of families with a member in law enforcement experience instances of domestic violence compared to 10 percent of families in the general public.
Smalley said just over 18 percent of adults in the U.S. every year suffer from anxiety disorders such as PTSD, panic attacks, phobias, and obsessive compulsive disorder.
“We’ve seen a cultural shift in the past five to 10 years on how we deal with these problems,” said Wellington police chief Tim Barfield. “There’s this stigma around mental health where it’s still really hard for many people to treat a problem with their mind like they would a problem with their heart or lungs.”
“It was a collaborative effort to get this talk put together tonight, and we’re thankful for it,” he said. “Just like with heroin and the overdoses, there’s a stigma we all need to move past. People are just people and we need to work to keep them healthy.”
Symptoms of anxiety disorders safety forces should watch for among their ranks included avoidance of social situations, decreased concentration, memory problems, indecisiveness, irritability, fatigue, and having vivid dreams.
“Your brain is an organ just like everything else,” she said. “Your brain can get sick and that affects everything else you do, period. Watch out too for a sudden change in a coworker’s appearance where they’re not shaving, showering, or getting a haircut. There are countless signs that something bad could be going on in their head.”
‘I JUST COULDN’T SLEEP IN A BED’
Knowlton served in the U.S. Navy for eight years, including tours in Iraq. She let her own PTSD go unchecked for seven years, leading to struggles with alcohol, irregular sleep patterns, and risky behavior such as compulsive gambling and driving at high speeds.
“We didn’t know what to do about PTSD when soldiers came back from Vietnam,” she said. “We’re doing a lot better now but it’s still a huge fight with a lot of work left to be done. When I got home I just couldn’t sleep in a bed. Set up a pile of sandbags in an alley and I’d be fine but sleeping in a perfect, clean, quiet bedroom just seemed so strange to me.”
When encountering people on-scene who may have PTSD or other mental problems, Knowlton encouraged responders to be patient and set up a rapport.
“I watched an 85-year-old vet tear up an emergency room when he woke up and had what was probably a flashback,” Knowlton said. “Many times, a veteran will get into a fight or commit a petty crime as a cry for help.”
According to Knowlton, one third of veterans seeking treatment for PTSD also have problems with substance abuse, which she said often serves as a preferred alternative to counseling.
“They don’t seek help and it becomes, ‘I’m going to go have a drink at the bar with the guys,’” she said. “If you let PTSD go, it takes over every aspect of your life. When I felt that way, I wanted to do anything that was dangerous and spontaneous. I had a motorcycle back then and that could have easily killed me. I was just trying to do anything to make those anxious feelings go away.”
Any profession that tasks personnel with showing a tough exterior makes it harder to acknowledge mental health problems when they arise, Barfield said.
“You think you can’t admit when stuff hurts you,” he said. “I’ve seen things that I know my mind will never forget. All of these people here tonight have seen those things. We’re trying to give people the tools to ask for help. We’ll all be healthier for it. For a long time, no one realized the damage that was being done to people.”
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.
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