Pinellas leaders launch free mental health program for first responders

This year alone, more than 120 first responders across the nation have died by suicide, 13 of them from Florida, according to a national nonprofit that tracks those numbers across the US

Pinellas leaders are hoping to fight the stigma surrounding mental health among first responders through a new foundation providing free, confidential counseling for the county’s first responders.

At a news conference Wednesday, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long announced the launch of Mental Health for Heroes, whose goal is to provide an average of 250 hours of mental health services to first responders each month.

While the Sheriff’s Office offers mental health services through its employee assistance program, deputies have remained hesitant to use those resources, Gualtieri said.

However, Mental Health for Heroes is different, he said. Deputies will be able to receive counseling from therapists who have been specially trained to work with first responders — or come from a law enforcement background themselves.

“We have to take care of the people doing the job so that they can take care of us,” Gualtieri said.

The program was soft-launched in January and already has served about 170 first responders, Long said. The services are completely anonymous, meaning that the first responders’ agencies and health insurance companies will not be notified that the participants are receiving services, she said .

“Mental Health for Heroes was established to ensure that there was a safe place for the unsung heroes among us,” Long said. “We are here to help them in their need and to help them navigate the issues they are facing over and over again on a daily basis.”

First responders can receive access to care by visiting providers, where they will be asked to fill out an intake form. From there, they will be contacted by one of the program’s.

During the news conference, Tom Pepin, former CEO of Pepin Distributing, a Tampa beer distributor, presented a $100,000 check to the foundation. So far, the program has received more than $500,000 in seed money, including Pepin’s donation, according to spokespeople for Mental Health for Heroes.

Tom Pepin, Tampa Bay philanthropist and former CEO of Pepin Distributing Company, left, reaches to shake the hand of Clearwater Police Department Major Nate Burnside moments after introducing Mental Health For Heroes, a foundation aimed at supporting Pinellas County’s first responders, during a press conference on Wednesday at the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office headquarters in Largo. Pepin donated $100,000 to the charitable organization, which seeks to provide funding for an average of 250 hours of mental health services per month for the area’s first responders — law enforcement officers, firefighters, and paramedics — who experience traumatic events on the job. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The organization is working with 360 Counseling and Tampa Bay Psychology Associates to provide mental health services.

Brandy Benson, the lead psychologist at Tampa Bay Psychology Associates, said first responders can face a unique form of PTSD that results in exposure to trauma over time. They also often put their own concerns on pause to serve others. But over time, this sacrifice can lead to burnout and compassion fatigue, Benson said.

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“The benefit to the general public is getting better law enforcement officers, getting better emergency medical clinicians, getting better firefighters that are ultimately serving and giving back to everyone,” she said.

Nichole Parker, director of operations at 360 Counseling, said all of the therapists at her business are specially certified to work with first responders.

“The officers come in and they often have experiences that other people don’t have,” she said. “Civilians don’t have those experiences.”

At the same time, she said, officers are not only coming in to address work issues — they also are seeking help in other areas of their lives, such as family issues.

“It’s much more than that,” she said. “We’re seeing people from all aspects.”

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