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App Helps First Responders Be Proactive About Mental Health

The Alli Connect platform uses machine learning technology to help first responders connect with mental health professionals before their problems become severe and prioritizes user privacy.

firefighter and police officer facing away from the camera at the scene of an incident
Adobe Stock/Daniel Avram
First responder agencies are doing the best they can to respond to the mental health needs of their personnel and those efforts continue to evolve.

First responders are notoriously hesitant to seek mental health help because of trust and privacy reasons and because they have traditionally thought they should be immune to such issues. That’s changing, and a new service aims to take that evolution to a new level.

An AI-powered wellness solution from Alli Connect seeks to treat first responders before a mental health crisis occurs and do so quickly, while protecting user privacy.

“As a peer support team member, we’re challenged with connecting a peer with a counselor. Alli Connect allows us to sit with a peer and identify topics they want to address,” a police chief, who didn’t want to be identified, said in a statement. “It helps to match that person with a counselor based on needs and specialization. Our peer support adage was, ‘We can lead them to water but it’s up to them to drink.’ With Alli Connect, we identify what’s causing the thirst and find a therapist who provides appropriate hydration.”

Alli Connect began serving emergency response agencies in Washington state and has recently expanded into Texas, Illinois and Alabama.

“[It’s] technology that not only takes a proactive approach for the individual, but also streamlines the process of getting them to the correct care in a timely manner, and really leaning on tech and AI, machine learning to do that, so we really have a scalable, accurate solution,” said Colleen Hilton, CEO of Alli Connect and 20-year licensed therapist.

“When we look back at wellness programs for law enforcement, wellness as a construct or a program didn’t even really start until the 1980s and was totally reactive,” Hilton said. “We understood that PTSD was a concern and an agency would hire somebody like me or a chaplain to provide critical incident debriefing after an incident.”

And life hasn’t gotten any easier for first responders, who regularly see people with drug dependencies, people with mental health issues and, increasingly, victims of mass shootings. For police officers, the stigma that has come with that profession after incidents like the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., has made the job even more stressful.

And still today, most of the mental health programs are reactive, Hilton said, in that if a first responder is seeking help — and usually by that time they’ve got a major problem — the first responder has to find it on their own.

That process doesn’t provide data insights and doesn’t make customized recommendations for an individual police officer or firefighter.

“It’s like somebody printed a list of phone numbers on a piece of paper and put it on a bulletin board,” said Richard Kasperowski, Alli Connect CTO and a software development instructor at Harvard.

The key to the Alli Connect service is early detection, and one of the barriers to early detection is confidentiality and privacy.

“So we know through our tech that everything is private,” Hilton said. “We provide them with the tools where they can do their own self-assessment and understand wellness and resilience from a baseline and track that over time so we’re not waiting for a crisis to happen.”

Alli Connect is available through agencies, cities, counties and states. From there individuals can undergo self-assessment, find a therapist based on their individual needs and track their own progress. The platform is both mobile and web-based.

“We usually go live with an agency in around 30 days, based on how much customization is done, and then we roll out with our team,” she said. “The goal is to establish a relationship of trust and trusted resources.”

All the resources are vetted and deemed “first responder friendly,” so the person who is looking for help doesn’t have to go through a list of several therapists before finding a competent one.

“We’re saying we brought you in [as a first responder] healthy and well and a resilient human — how do we help you stay that way?” Hilton said. “It’s through early detection and educational tools, resources and self-assessment.”
Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management magazine.