Mental wellness conference planned for first responders

Imagine a day in which you help a couple whose baby died of SIDS, chase after a man who beat his wife and mediate a fight between neighbors over barking dogs.

Then imagine every day is like that.

It’s the life of a police officer and the reason why so many them and other first responders suffer from mental health and substance abuse issues at a relatively high level, according to Shawn Thomas, a Seattle police officer who organizes First Responder Conferences across the country.

“You can’t unsee something,” she said.

On March 20-21, a First Responder Mental Health and Wellness conference is being held at the Swinomish Casino in Anacortes. It’s presented by Thomas’ First Responder Conferences group, Blue H.E.L.P. and Code 4 Northwest. The Island County Sheriff’s Office and the Swinomish Police Department are hosting the event, which is dedicated to helping first responders and their families handle the stresses of the job.

Sgt. Laura Price with the Island County Sheriff’s Office is helping to coordinate the conference and will speak about “the power of vision.”

She said she’s hoping businesses and individuals in the community will support the first responders by donating to the conference to help cover costs or to the scholarship fund to help first responders pay for attending the two-day conference.

“First responders” covers a wide variety of occupations, including police, firefighters, paramedics, corrections officers, dispatchers, chaplains, members of the military and veterans.

But they all share experiences, Price said, that can be hard to process.

“We’re supposed to be so strong and so stoic that it gets hard after awhile and we start to have symptoms,” she said.

Price said spouses and adult children of first responders are also encouraged to attend.

Among the six speakers are a clinic psychologist who will discuss the emotional costs of being a first responder; a Seattle police officer and founder of Code 4 Northwest who will speak about ways to prevent things like PTSD, cumulative stress, compassion fatigue and addiction; and a Seattle firefighter and member of the Incident Stress Management Team who will discuss his experiences and how to make positive change.

All of the speakers are first responders themselves.

“They talk our language,” Price said. “They understand what’s going on with us.”

Thomas explained that she started First Responder Conferences in 2016 after her husband, who is also a police officer, was having difficulties and she discovered it was tough finding help for him.

And it’s a serious problem.

The Ruderman Family Foundation reports that firefighters and police officers are more likely to die from suicide than in the line of duty. They are also as much as five times more likely than people in the civilian population to suffer from PTSD or depression.

“Suicide is a result of mental illness, including depression and PTSD, which stems from constant exposure to death and destruction,” a Ruderman White Paper explained.

Thomas said she’s held 12 conference across the nation so far.

Price said she hopes these conferences can help diminish the stigma regarding mental health or substance abuse issues, but also lead to changes in the kind of training and resources available to first responders.

Price said she’d like to see, for example, the state criminal justice training center add mental health awareness and coping mechanisms to the curriculum.

“Nobody is really talking about this yet,” Price said. “It’s really in its infancy.”

• Anyone interested in attending or donating can contact Price at laurap@co.island.wa.us

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