HUNTINGTON — First responders get into their professions to help others but are sometimes without the tools to help themselves, said Lt. Steve McCormick of the Huntington Fire Department.
Things they see on a daily basis take a toll on their mental health, and as a result, first responders are 10 times more likely to commit suicide than the average person.
McCormick was on hand Wednesday as the city of Huntington unveiled a new program that will give first responders ways to improve their ability to cope during and after high-stress situations.
The program, known as Compass, will provide training, classes and a state-of-the-art wellness center to help first responders improve their mental health.
Compass is funded with $1 million the city won in October 2018 from the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ U.S. Mayors Challenge. The yearlong competition encouraged city leaders to propose “bold, inventive” ideas to confront their city’s toughest problems.
Huntington focused its proposal on combating “compassion fatigue,” feelings of depleted empathy in the face of overwhelming overdose calls.
Huntington Mayor Steve Williams said the proposal stemmed from the city’s realization that police, firefighters and EMS workers were dealing with a level of stress that others could not comprehend.
During the height of the opioid crisis, they would revive the same people repeatedly and witnessed many of them die without getting treatment. This included people they grew up with or knew in the community. Not being able to help the situation affected their mental health, he said.
“You can only imagine the level of stress that places upon the first responders, because they are different than the rest of us,” Williams said. “They chose their professions to go and be able to fix something.”
The name Compass was chosen because the city wanted the program to be another tool to improve their lives at work and at home, said Lt. Phil Watkins of the Huntington Police Department.
“Police officers have their tools, such as their handcuffs, their firearms, things of that nature. Firefighters have their axes and their hose,” Watkins said. “Now HPD and HFD will have another tool they can add to their repertoire, a compass to navigate wellness.”
The program establishes a website and an app that allows first responders to register for classes and connect to resources if they are having a difficult time coping. A wellness center is also being designed by Edward Tucker Architects to be built on the fifth floor of the Huntington Police Department building.
The designs were made with input from first responders and includes an exercise room, a nutrition center, a lounge and studios for yoga and meditation.
Williams said one of the missions of the program is to create something that can be replicated throughout the country. The program could be used for other first responders, emergency room workers and clergy. During a trip to a leadership conference at the White House on Tuesday, Williams said he talked about how Huntington could set standards for how larger cities deal with the opioid epidemic.
“One of the points I was trying to make was small cities the size of Huntington can identify sooner what works, quicker what doesn’t work and faster how to fix it,” he said.
Dr. Lyn O’Connell, associate director of community services at the Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine and Marshall Health, said the program was designed with input from the first responders and what they wanted to get out of it.
“We need to acknowledge that the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety are higher in first responding communities than in the general population, and we know any loss is too great a loss within our community,” she said.
Travis Crum is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He may be reached by phone at 304-526-2801.