This article originally appeared in the Friday Aug. 2, 2019 issue of the Progress Times.
To help first responders in the city of Alton take care of their mental well-being, the city has implemented a new program to assist those whose job it is to assist others.
As part of a partnership with the Mission-based Piña & Acosta Psychological Associates, the city implemented a new policy last week that makes it mandatory for first responders to be cleared by a qualified mental health professional after responding to a critical incident.
On top of the mental health evaluation, the city of Alton also partnered up with the Plano-based Marketplace chaplain-an online service that connects users with a chaplain to provide counseling and spiritual guidance.
First responders are encouraged to download the “My Chaplain” app to be connected to a local chaplain- an optional service Flores said. These two policies, he explained, were created to help more first responders seek help for their mental health, which could be affected in the line of duty.
“First responders, in the performance of their duties, are exposed to incidents normal citizens would not regularly be exposed to such as murders, rapes, fatal accidents and have to give notifications to family members,” Flores said. “On top of that, life can hit you and it can hit you hard sometimes with financial problems, marital problems and other issues in your personal life that can make the job more stressful. All these things take a mental toll on the mental health of first responders.”
With the new policy and the chaplain services, Flores said a new outlet is being offered to employees to help them when they’re encountering any issues.
“Research has shown that there exists a culture of first responders accepting this stress as part of the job,” Flores said. “As we evolve, we understand we can be the protectors and help others but to also receive help if and when we need it.”
According to a February 2017 article by the Journal of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, first responders have elevated rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, and alcohol use disorder when compared to the general population. An April 2018 study published by the Ruderman Family Foundation found that more first responders die by suicide than in the line of duty each year.
As of last June, 46 firefighters and EMS workers and 97 law enforcement officers have committed suicide this year according to a June 2019 article from the online media website Vox.
“Research has shown that receiving mental health services is a stigma for first responders,” Flores said. “We want to say as an administration that that stigma does not exist. It’s OK to receive help and they can seek it out. We are providing them a resource at no cost.”
The “My Chaplain” app will connect users to a local chaplain and even family members of Alton first responders can use the service. Users have the option to speak to the chaplain on the phone, through text or through facetime, Flores said.
As far as he knows, Alton is the only city in the county that’s partnered with the “My Chaplain” app, Flores said.
“We hope that awareness gets raised on this issue and first responders across the nation understand they’re not alone in this,” Flores said. “Resources are available to them and they should seek services without fear of backlash.”