PORT ORCHARD — U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, the 6th District congressman, invited Kitsap County firefighter and law enforcement agency leaders to a roundtable event at Kitsap 911 headquarters in Bremerton Nov. 26 to discuss mental health issues faced by the emergency first-responder community.
Kilmer asked the gathering to assess the first-responder community’s perspectives as it grapples with a growing need to address stress issues created from the business of responding to emergency situations as part of their work life.
The congressman said he was surprised by how often the issue of mental health needs in the first-responder community has been raised while he’s been in office.
“This issue has come up more in more places and in more ways in this job than I ever expected,” Kilmer, a Democrat, said while addressing the group.
“No matter where I am, when I visit schools or other places, the issue I hear about most is mental health. It also comes up at the company visits I make. And housing and social-services advocates raise the same concerns.”
Revealingly, Kilmer said he discovered that the largest provider of mental health in most of the counties he represents is the county jail.
“Something I hadn’t fully appreciated until talking with a group of first responders that came out to Washington, D.C. was the stress and strain that’s put on first responders as part of the difficult work that you and the people under your command do.”
That group of visiting first responders, Kilmer said, provided him with statistics showing a spike in suicide among emergency responders, which is at a higher rate than in any other profession.
In view of the looming mental-health issue within that community, the congressman said he is one of the main sponsors of a House bill called “The HERO Act,” which he said encourages mental-health awareness in the community and provides for additional resources to address the problem.
The bill, which has been endorsed by the International Association of Firefighters and other emergency agency organizations, establishes national grants for nonprofit fire service and emergency medical service organizations to provide training for firefighters and EMTs to serve as peer counselors within local fire stations and EMS departments. Those peer counselors would assist firefighters and EMTs with their behavioral health issues.
The bill also would add requirements for the Secretary of Health and Human Services to report to Congress annually on the number of suicides by first responders in a given calendar year. The secretary’s office also would be required to develop and distribute best practices in identifying, preventing and treating post-traumatic stress among first responders.
“It’s a bill that’s gotten pretty broad bipartisan support,” Kilmer said. “I’m hoping we see some forward motion on it.”
Chief Steve Wright of South Kitsap Fire and Rescue told Kilmer that in his department, peer teams have become popular with the workforce.
“That’s especially true with the next generation that’s here — the idea that they talk to each other more [about these issues],” Wright said. “It’s much healthier than it was with our generation.”
Wright said the issue of post-traumatic stress injury or disorder was included in the mix of mental-health issues the peer counselors are now addressing among their teams.
“That is expanding the conversation at a much bigger level,” he said. “People are recognizing that this is happening. The workforce is changing. In our generation, we might go out and do certain things after work [to deal with stress issues] in unhealthy ways. But today’s generation is open more to talking about starting a discussion at the peer level.”
The group of first-responder agency leaders agreed that post-traumatic stress disorder — or PTSD — has become known as a “retirement disease.” One of the leaders told Kilmer that an increasing number of first responders are leaving the field due to stress-related factors, many preventing them from leading a normal life outside of work.
In this field of work that has been characterized by first responders who “carry on with a stiff upper lip,” the leaders said a culture shift is taking place in which it’s becoming more acceptable within the department to ask for mental-health assistance. They said the change is starting to take hold on the ground floor where responders are turning to each other — their peers — for support and guidance on where to get professional help.
The collection of leaders said they recognized there still is a need for them to reassure staff members that asking for help is a benefit individually and to each department as a whole.