First responders mental health: Serving those who serve us

Local News

PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — We see the badge and flashing lights and hear the loud sirens that sometimes drown out the fact that first responders are human, too.

They’re men and women in our community risking their lives to save our lives.

But they’re still facing challenges of their own.

“We’re fixers. We like to fix things, and sometimes we don’t even recognize the fact that we’re broken ourselves,” said Peoria Fire Chief Tony Ardis.

2020 has been a tough year. We’ve lived through an ongoing pandemic, racial unrest, and now we’re entering into a contentious election season.

“Since March, I will say there’s been an increase in mental health crisis types of calls,” said Peoria County Sheriff Brian Asbell. “We’ve actually seen this inside the facility as well, in the jail.  An increase in mental health calls. Or situations of self-harm.”

Mental health has been at the forefront as people try to confront the bleakness in their lives, but how are those tasked with helping others taking time to help themselves?

“I’m concerned because we don’t know the timeline of the health pandemic. We don’t know the timeline of the economic crisis we’re in,” Asbell said.

Daily battles of the mind, Americans struggling to take control of their mental health. Even our superheroes on the frontlines.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports in the past 20 years — suicide rates have increased about 35%, with more than 48,000 people losing their lives to suicide in 2018.

Peoria County has seen 18 suicides so far in 2020 — two of those being police-involved incidents.

“When a family experiences the loss of family member though suicide, the grieving process is much more complicated than say a “natural cause” death,” said Peoria County Coroner Jamie Harwood.   “Families need answers and closure, and sadly, sometimes we are not able to give them that.  Thus, the steps through the grief process are more difficult to navigate.  

Tazewell County has seen 11 suicides this year so far: 10 male victims and one female. Charlie Hanley, Tazewell County Coroner, told WMBD’s Matt Sheehan the ages ranged from 18 to 80.

In 2019, there was a total of 11 suicides, 10 males victims and one female victim, with ages ranging from 17 to 92-years-old.

In 2018, the County saw 19 deaths ruled as suicides.

Coroner Hanley said the number could actually be higher because it’s difficult to determine whether to rule an overdose death as a suicide or not.

“Suicide takes a loved life from all walks of life. Rich, poor, young, old, male or female,” he said.

Woodford County Coroner Tim Ruestman said there have been two reported suicides in Woodford County so far this year.

After the pandemic, Sheriff Asbell fears things are only going to get worse.

“You have a storm that’s coming in on so many different fronts and that impacts the mental health of so many individuals at so many different levels,” Asbell said.

Dr. Ted Bender, President of UnityPlace, says the global health crisis has caused an uptick in the need for mental health services.

“Here locally, our inpatient units, outpatient units, and mental health services are in very high demand as it continues to grow stronger as the months go by,” he said.

Dr. Bender said the health and financial stress many central Illinoisans are under are leading factors to the need for mental health services.

“The increased isolation caused by the pandemic and probably more impactful is the economic downturn. Is all working together in an unprecedented time to cause significant impacts on our physical and mental health,” he said. “Repeated exposure to severe trauma does cause a lot of significant issues for frontline responders.”

While it is tough sometimes, Dr. Bender says there’s always hope.

“That is the nature of mental illness. Distorted thinking is a big part of that. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is help,” he assured.

That help stretches to the ones who help us too.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported around 30% of first responders develop behavioral health conditions like depression and PTSD.

A recent study showed nearly 7% of Fire and EMS professionals reported having attempted suicide, compared to only 0.5% of civilians.

A report done by Northwestern University cites a study done by the Ruderman Family Institute which said in 2017, more firefighters and police officers died by suicide than in the line of duty.

The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance aims to end suicide in fire departments around the country. It offers workshops and resources for firefighters dealing with mental health issues.

“FBHA’s goal is to provide behavioral health workshops to fire departments, EMS and Dispatch organizations across the globe, focusing on behavioral health awareness with a strong emphasis towards suicide prevention and promoting resources available to firefighters/EMS/Dispatch and their families,” the website states.

The National Volunteer Fire Council also offers similar resources for volunteer fire departments.

There are nearly 26,000 members in the NVFC. The website posts volunteer opportunities around the country.

Chief Ardis said many times first responders in Peoria are called to very gruesome scenes. These scenes take a toll on the men and women who serve us, he said.

“Once you go through that, it’s with you forever. These calls, when I was back on the street, these calls were so difficult because what we went through as a family,” Ardis said.

Chief Ardis said when responding to a scene — a first responder’s goals is to save someone — but that’s not always possible.

“When they come here, their job is to try and take care of those patients. It’s very difficult when the patient has already expired, because their job, their focus, and their goal is to make someone’s life better. To save someone’s life,” he said.

Both Chief Ardis and Sheriff Asbell said their crews have in-house counseling and support if they need someone to talk to.

UnityPoint Health UnityPlace offers mental health and substance use disorder services for anyone in the area.

UnityPlace’s Outreach Coordinator, Denise Backes, said the organization is working to break the stigma of mental health.

“It’s something I’d say, you’re not alone, it’s something a lot of people struggle with. Help is literally a phone call away,” she said. “We offer services for individuals aged four through the end of life. We have a comprehensive service line in this area for mental health and addiction issues. Anything from outpatient services, which could be counseling, group services, to in-patient residential care.”

Backes said UnityPlace offers in-person care still, but is also doing virtual care.

Sheriff Brian Asbell said law enforcement is a tough “alpha male” line of work. Even on what can be traumatizing scenes, officers tend to put their emotions aside.

“You’re always focused when you’re managing these calls,” he said. “You’re dealing with the situation at hand.”

It’s when they get in their cars and drive away that the emotions sink in.

“This is a job that comes with PTSD. Most people say PTSD comes from a combat situation, which is does, but the reality is, it’s repeated exposure to trauma,” Asbell said.

The CDC reports teen suicides have jumped 56% from 2007-2017.

Now, suicide is the second leading cause of death of people between the ages of 10 and 34, and the fourth leading cause of death of those between those 35-54.

Sheriff Asbell believes there’s a connection between suicide and social media. Facebook was created in 2004, Twitter in 2006 and Instagram in 2010.

“There’s been a lot of correlation in the rise of suicide rates in the last decade with social media. Whether it’s because of bullying, you can’t get away from your attacker on social media,” Asbell said.

The CDC reported suicides actually decreased in adolescents from 2000-2007, but nearly tripled from 2007-2017.

Teens aren’t the only ones struggling. The CDC reports for men over 75-yeas-old, 40 out of 100,000 lose their lives to suicide. That number decreased from 42.4 in 1999 to 35.6 in 2009, then jumped to 39.9 in 2018.

Sheriff Asbell said the Peoria County Jail has seen an increase in mental health crisis calls as well.

Chief Ardis said more people are losing their jobs and homes due to the pandemic, which in turn causes turmoil in their personal lives.

“It seems like we’ve seen an increase in not only homeless people, because of what’s going on with the economy, but also psych calls. People who are suffering emotionally,” Ardis said.

Sheriff Asbell said it’s part of law enforcement’s jobs not to only serve justice, but to serve the everyday needs of the community.

“That’s one of our jobs in law enforcement when you have questions if you have a situation or a concern of somebody’s welfare.  Make the call, make the call,” Asbell said. “We’ll arrive, do everything we can, or we’ll get the resources the individual needs.”

If you need help, UnityPoint Health UnityPlace has emergency response services for the Tri-County area.

In Peoria County you can call 309-671-8084.

Tazewell and Woodford Counties: 309-347-1148.

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 800-273-8255.

If you live in McLean County, you can call the Mclean County Center for Human Services at 309-827-5351.

1-833-2FINDHELP is a helpline for people looking for assistance when it comes to substance abuse.

If you need any sort of resources, you can always call 2-1-1 or 1-888-865-9903.

If you live in Fulton County, you can call Spoon River Counseling & Wellness at 309-740-2171.

You can also call or visit the DHS Family Community Resource Center located at 1329 North Main Street, Lewistown, IL 61542 or call them at 309-547-3755.

The Department of Human Services has a LaSalle County office located at 1560 First Avenue, Ottawa, IL 61350 and can reach them at 815-433-1572.

DHS has a Mason County office in Havana located at 323 West Main Street Havana, IL 62644. You can call them at 309-543-3329.

Henry County has a DHS office in Kewanee located at 150 West South Street. You can call them at 309-852-5627.

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