(TNS) - Baton Rouge first responders now have access to expanded psychological support services, which organizers say they hope will mitigate the emotional effects of responding to traumatic scenes day after day.
East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome announced the program Wednesday and said the goal is helping emergency personnel deal with the "stresses and other mental health burdens" that can arise from their jobs — needs that are sometimes overlooked.
About 20 East Baton Rouge Parish Emergency Medical Services personnel have recently been trained for their involvement with the agency's Critical Incident Stress Management team, which is alerted when calls come in that could be particularly traumatic for responders and when someone within the agency identifies a need.
The team's members all applied and trained for the program and do this in addition to their daily EMS duties.
Assistant team leader Justin Arnone said the program was actually created several years ago. But the agency decided to revamp and restructure it after the tumultuous summer of 2016 — the Alton Sterling shooting, subsequent protests followed by the ambush on officers and then the August floods. He said that series of challenges left EMS providers overwhelmed and contributed to low morale.
"Being a paramedic, you're dealing with people every single day who are going through their worst," Arnone said. "We call it compassion fatigue. You have to be there for people when they need help, no matter how big or small the event."
He said the crisis and stress management program offers peer support for emergency personnel. It's a way to let them know they aren't alone and that it's normal to experience stress resulting from their jobs, which can include feeling guilt for not being to save someone's life or for not having arrived at a scene faster.
The team also will serve other local law enforcement agencies and fire departments if requested.
People are becoming more aware of the potential mental health impacts of those jobs, according to program organizers.
Research has shown elevated rates of attempted suicide among EMS personnel. While data isn't widely available on suicide rates among EMS workers, a study released earlier this year showed that more firefighters and police officers committed suicide in 2017 than died in incidents on the job.
"For a long time in the public safety community, there's always been this culture of 'if you can't stand the heat, get out the kitchen' — be tough, don't talk about things, just deal with it," Arnone said. "That mantra of keeping everything bottled in, that came from a lack of understanding, and that's what we're trying to change."
The team includes a licensed social worker who already works full time with the agency. Team members respond whenever a "code green" alert is sounded, indicating EMS providers could use psychological support.
Broome said the issue of revamping support services for first responders came up during the transition period as she was taking over the reins of city-parish government.
"Mental health is certainly a top priority for my administration," she said. "These are people who come to work everyday to serve the citizens of this parish. I want an environment where they feel they can come to have their challenges and burdens relieved."
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