1st Responder Suicide Prevention Initiative Awarded State Funding

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TAMPA, FL — Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister is all too aware of the toll the job can take on first responders who put their lives on the line or witness unspeakable tragedies, all in a day’s work.

Due to these stresses, first responders have higher-than-average rates of divorce, substance abuse, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, thoughts of suicide and suicides, according to a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

It’s a problem that’s struck the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office especially hard.

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Less than a month after a Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputy took his life at his home in Ruskin on Dec. 30, a Hillsborough County sheriff’s detective killed another deputy he was romantically involved with and then took his own life at a vacation rental house in St. Augustine Jan. 29.

In December 2018, a Hillsborough sheriff’s deputy who was once named Officer of the Year used his service weapon to kill his wife, daughter and granddaughter before turning the gun on himself at their home in Plant City.

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And in September 2018, a Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputy shot his wife in their Land O’ Lakes home before killing himself while their three young children were upstairs in the home.

Unfortunately, first responders are often the last people to seek help for a mental health problem, said Clara Reynolds, president and CEO of Crisis Center of Tampa Bay.

“These brave men and women bear witness to countless scenes of trauma during their career but face a stigma that prevents them from getting help,” said Reynolds.

The SAMHSA report said first responders feel undue pressure to put on a brave front when their lives are threatened or they witness an unspeakable tragedy. Burying their emotions can make them feel overwhelmed and alienated.

It’s a concern that first responder agencies in Hillsborough County recognized in September 2019 when they partnered with the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay to launch the “First to Respond” campaign to encourage first responders struggling with thoughts of suicide to call the crisis center at 211 to speak to someone when they’re feeling overwhelmed.

When the pandemic was declared, heightening the stress level of first responders, the crisis center set up a dedicated hotline for first responders (866-4FL-HERO) manned by professionals trained to understand the unique stresses and trauma first responders encounter in the line of duty.

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Following an announcement this week by Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary Shevaun Harris, the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay will now be able to expand the program and reach more first responders.

The crisis center was among five behavioral health services in Florida selected to receive $12 million in funding from the DCF to be used to connect Florida’s first responders and their families to a provider or peer who is trained to provide referrals, information and counseling.

“We are happy to announce the expansion of additional behavioral health service providers for first responders in each region,” said Harris. “These local vendors are experts in their field and will provide much-needed prevention and early intervention services to Florida’s first responders and their families.”

In addition to the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, the DCF awarded funds to Florida A&M University serving northwest Florida, Lutheran Services Florida Health Systems serving northeast Florida, UCF RESTORES serving central Florida and 211 Broward serving the southeast region.

The effort to obtain the $12 million in funding was led by First Lady Casey DeSantis who announced in December an initiative to implement or expand behavioral health services, such as peer-to-peer support, in response to an increase in suicide rates for first responders around the state in the wake of the pandemic.

In addition to expanding behavioral health services, the program also calls for the creation of a toolkit for first responder agencies providing resources and training to improve the wellbeing and help manager the stress of first responders.

Florida A&M University has been tasked with creating the toolkit.

It’s welcome news for Chronister.

“Being a first responder is an extremely stressful and taxing job,” Chronister said. “We are working every day to remove the stigma behind asking for help and talking to someone when you’re struggling. It’s critical that we have support systems in place. It is heartbreaking any time we lose one of our own as a law enforcement officer, but especially in such a preventable way. I am pleading with any first responder who is struggling to please speak up and ask for help. It’s OK not to be OK.”

Chronister has already taken steps on his own to provide additional services to help deputies cope with the stresses of the job.

In 2000, he formed and trained a team of nine volunteer chaplains from different religions to counsel deputies and civilian employees who are struggling with depression and stress.

Then, in September, Chronister introduced a new member of the sheriff’s office whose sole job is to comfort and help deputies decompress after a particularly difficult day.

Mason Star, a Labrador retriever, was donated to the sheriff’s office by K-9s for Warriors as part of its “station dog program.”

He is the sixth station dog in the United States to be placed by K-9s for Warriors, the nation’s largest provider of trained service dogs to military veterans.

The program reallocates trained service dogs who either have been “retired” following their time paired with a veteran or have a temperament better suited for a station dog environment.

“Mason’s presence and unique skill set brightens our halls and offices, and he brings comfort to those who need to decompress and share a moment with a furry friend,” Chronister said. “Our days are often filled with challenging situations, and at times tensions run high, but Mason’s friendship will help keep spirits up and remind us that no one walks alone.”

To learn more about the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay’s Peer-to-Peer Behavioral Health Services for First Responders and the Last to Ask campaign, click here.

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