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As mental health awareness increases, first responders still face inadequate care across Vermont

On the left side of a table, a man lays down papers. A row of people sit on the other side. A hat with "Burlington Fire" on it sits in the middle.
Sophie Stephens
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Vermont Public
Frank Gallo hands out worksheets to a group of firefighters attending a wellness session at the Burlington Fire Station 1 on Jan. 24. Burlington Fire is increasing it's commitment to providing mental health resources by hosting group wellness activities run by station leaders.

First responders show up at fatal car crashes, house fires and overdoses in Vermont's largest cities and its smallest towns.

But the mental health support they receive after a critical event can vary depending on where the department is located.

Now, advocates want to change that, and make sure emergency service providers get the mental health support they need.

In 2021, the Vermont Legislature set up the Emergency Service Provider Wellness Commission to take a look at whether first responders are receiving mental health support in both large and small communities across the state.

Royalton Police Chief Loretta Stalnaker is a member of the commission, and said it’s a relatively new idea among emergency service providers to recognize the stress and trauma that comes with answering critical calls.

“We’re now just hitting the tip of the iceberg about first responders and their trauma. It’s been something that’s been overlooked for a long time."
Loretta Stalnaker, Royalton Police Chief

“We’re now just hitting the tip of the iceberg about first responders and their trauma,” Stalnaker said. “It’s been something that’s been overlooked for a long time. And there’s a lot of people that have 20, 30 years in, that are just realizing they have issues they need to deal with."

But it's not just the critical calls that can cause burnout and stress.

Stalnaker said in small towns, first responders often answer calls at the same home, trying to help neighbors struggling with addiction or domestic abuse.

Royalton Police Chief Loretta Stalnaker leaves her card on a car involved with a parking lot dispute. Stalnaker says first responders in small rural departments need mental health support as much as those in larger, more urban departments.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
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Vermont Public
Royalton Police Chief Loretta Stalnaker leaves her card on a car involved with a parking lot dispute. Stalnaker says first responders in small, rural departments need mental health support as much as those in larger, more urban departments.

“You know, I think the challenges for us is we see people, these recurring people — we see a lot of the same individuals all the time,” she said. “I mean, it’s hard to know somebody’s in pain, in harm’s way, and not being able to help. It’s frustrating for us not to have resources to help them. Not to be able to help them. But it’s sad for us to know that there are people out there and our hands are tied and we just don’t have any resources to help them.”

The Royalton Police Department has three full-time officers to patrol the Windsor County town of just under 3,000 people.

And Stalnaker said in some small towns, it’s the more senior chiefs and administrators that sometimes make it hard to address mental health issues among the officers.

While in some of Vermont’s larger communities, there are resources — and a willingness — to talk about mental health.

“For whatever reason, mental health has always been a taboo subject,” said Mark McDonough, a captain at the Burlington Fire Department. “But I think that, as a society, we have started to acknowledge that mental health and mental illness is a spectrum, just like your physical health and physical illness. And that you can treat it. You can be open about it, and be a much healthier person if you do.”

The Burlington Fire Department has been holding wellness and mental health support trainings for a few years — and next year, for the first time, the department is asking for dedicated money in the budget to support the programing.

“For whatever reason, mental health has always been a taboo subject. But I think that, as a society, we have started to acknowledge that mental health and mental illness is a spectrum, just like your physical health and physical illness. And that you can treat it. You can be open about it, and be a much healthier person if you do.”
Mark McDonough, Burlington Fire Department

And while a large department like Burlington Fire can ask its taxpayers to support a wellness program, Stephanie Busch, who’s with the Department of Health, said the state’s smaller volunteer organization are largely on their own.

“You know smaller organizations — whether it’s a fire department, an EMS organization — if it’s predominantly volunteer, which a lot of our workforce is, for some EMS agencies it might be just a couple of people that are in leadership, and not have a dedicated person or any kind of budget to be able to have someone who’s focused on thinking about the mental health and wellness and physical wellness of their volunteers,” Busch said.

More from Vermont Public: Vermont wants more funding for mental health support for first responders

Busch chairs the Emergency Service Provider Wellness Commission, and said the group’s been using a federal grant to establish a statewide peer-to-peer support program so an emergency service provider can talk to someone after a critical call, even if that person is part of a small, rural department.

And the group is also trying to get more clinicians to work with first responders.

The federal grant runs out next year, and Busch said the commission is trying to figure out how to keep its programs going.

But Busch said even if more money was available, the stigma that’s attached with seeking mental health support can be a barrier, especially among emergency service providers.

“So one of the things I would say, in the past, around first responders, is a belief or thought of, like, 'Well you knew you were signing up to go to bad car crashes, so, like, suck it up.' Like 'You know what you signed up for' component,” Busch said. “And I think that has led to stigma, that has led to people not wanting to reach out for help, even if they are struggling with something because of that.”

Vicki Fielding stands outside the Northfield Ambulance building.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
/
Vermont Public
Vicki Fielding stands outside the Northfield Ambulance building. Fielding says a change in society's views on mental health has helped younger people be more open about talking about it, especially thanks to social media.

Vicki Fielding used to work at Northfield Ambulance, and lately she's been volunteering at Grand Island Rescue.

Fielding, who is 35, answered a critical call a few years back that’s taken a long time to process, and she said folks her age are more open to talking about mental health.

“Society in a whole has kind of pushed mental health away,” Fielding said. “And I think that’s changed a lot with the advent of social media. People going, ‘Yeah, I’m having a difficult time right now.’ And people connecting with that. And being like, ‘Wow. It’s OK for me to share with strangers' or whatever. And so, I think that’s really what has changed, is that there are a lot more people who are going like, ‘Yeah, I have these mental illnesses that, you know, anxiety or a fear from a traumatic event that happened in my life' or something like that. And people are able to go, ‘Yeah. No. I can relate to that. I’ve had something similar.' Not exactly, obviously, because everybody is different and unique, but, you know, we can lean on each other. You’re stronger together than just alone.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

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Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.