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First ever first responder mental health and wellness conference hopes to increase awareness of need

EMS medics from the Houston Fire Department prepare to transport a 2-year-old girl to a hospital on Aug. 25.
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EMS medics from the Houston Fire Department prepare to transport a 2-year-old girl to a hospital on Aug. 25.

The state legislature allocated $25,000 of the budget to address high rates of suicides among first responders in the state. This money was taken by the Wyoming Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) and utilized to create the first ever First Responders Health and Wellness Conference that will take place August 22-24 in Casper. Wyoming Public Radio's Kamila Kudelska spoke with POST executive director Chris Walsh on why the conference is needed.

Chris Walsh: It's been needed for a long time, maybe not fully recognized, but the prompting event was some recent first responder suicides that have happened in the state. And I think that kind of kicked in. And so the state legislators, unsolicited and to their credit, said, 'Hey, let's do something about it,' and allocated the money for it.

Kamila Kudelska: POST provides training to make sure that first responders are getting training as they're continuing to work. Does that, at all, include any mental health care or wellness?

CW: This is the first time that we're providing training through a conference. What I typically do, and the staff here, is validate training that the agencies either send their officers to or put on themselves. And so we make sure that it follows guidelines, and it's proper training, but I can tell you that first responder agencies have started incorporating a lot of mental health and mental trauma type training into their yearly training programs. But this is the first statewide first responder conference that has been set up.

KK: And so what is the conference hoping to provide to the first responders?

CW: Things always work better when you get the expertise from all the different fields. So I got together with the State Fire Marshal, Director of DCI, the person in charge of EMS with the state, and then people within departments and we looked at what we thought was needed. And so it's not just treatment of symptoms, or post traumatic incidents, let's say, but everything from proper selection of individuals at the hiring stage to creating an atmosphere within organizations that maintains a good working environment, good mental health background, recognizing signs, where a person might be starting to struggle, and intervention techniques. And then, of course, dealing with major incidents. So instead of just taking it from the back where we see the problems manifest really well beyond any kind of recovery, which would be like a suicide, let's see if we can get in front of it and start building that culture where we take care of problems before they turn into something big.

KK: How much do you think the pandemic has maybe impacted this need for this?

CW: You know, that's a hard one to say. You can't qualify with anything, and I always like to back something up with facts. But from my perspective, the world became isolated. And so a lot of the ways you solve problems and work things out, you know, as my background as a peace officer, you talk to other cops, and when you're isolated, when you can't have that interaction, I don't think humans do well. So certainly couldn't help. And well, I can't scientifically back that up. We're all people. And we all know that those are facts.

KK: What about the rural nature of Wyoming? I mean, obviously Wyoming has always been more rural. But I wonder if that has at all impacted first responders having to take more calls because there's not as many officers supporting them or anything like that?

CW: Certainly. You don't have the backup, you don't have large departments in many places, somebody's gone. If people are ill, if people quit, now you're carrying a double load. So add isolation onto working harder and it creates a lot of internal stress for the individuals that are doing it. And I can tell you that there's a lot of struggles with hiring right now. So that means department numbers are down. That means that those officers and those firefighters and those EMTs are all working harder than they normally would be or harder than they should be, really with no end in sight. So add a difficult situation on top of kind of no light at the end of the tunnel, that becomes pretty depressing.

KK: Any idea why it's so hard to hire people in the sector now?

CW: Oh, yeah. I mean, look at the national response towards peace officers in particular. Who would want to be a peace officer? Now we're blessed in Wyoming that we don't have that kind of just blatant nasty attacks that you see all over the rest of the United States on people that are trying to do the right thing and do good things, but it's prevalent. And so if you're looking for a career and you're just starting out in life, you might say to yourself, 'Well, when does it come here and I don't want to be a part of that.'

KK: So I know that this year was funded by the legislature. Any thoughts about the future? Or are you not even thinking about that yet? I know that the conference still hasn't happened. But any thoughts on how potentially to continue this type of education and training?

CW: Well, first of all, I don't know that the state needs to continue to fund it in future years. I think the formal recognition by the state that, 'Hey, let's address this issue,' is kind of an eye opener for everybody. But I'm telling you that I see a lot of departments offering training and sending their officers to training independent of this conference. So these mental health and wellness educational instruction is going on independent of this. So this might be a good catalyst and I think we'll continue to see organizations put on training to address their individual needs. So I don't know what the future holds for a mental health conference. But I think that training will only continue to increase.

In addition to reporting daily on the happenings in Northwest Wyoming, Kamila is also the producer of the Kids Ask WhY Podcast and the History Unloaded Podcast.Kamila has worked for public radio stations in California, New York, France and Poland. Originally from New York City, she loves exploring new places. Kamila received her master in journalism from Columbia University. In her spare time, she enjoys exploring the surrounding areas with her two pups and husband.
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