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Vermont wants more funding for mental health support for first responders

Members of Colchester Rescue and the Colchester Fire Department carry a patient to an ambulance after a car crash on a winter day.
Stephanie Busch
/
Courtesy
Members of Colchester Rescue and the Colchester Fire Department carry a patient to an ambulance after a car crash on a winter day.

The Vermont Department of Health will ask lawmakers for additional funding next year for a mental health support program for first responders.

For the past two years the state has been running a program called Skills and Experience for Calling Up Resiliency, or SECURE, which was largely paid for with federal grants.

Stephanie Busch, the injury prevention program manager for the Department of Health, said the federal grants will expire in about a year. The department wants lawmakers to put money into next year’s budget to support — and expand — mental health programs for first responders across the state.

“The research is well established that first responders experience significant occupational stress and trauma related to the work that we do,” Busch said. “And if there’s not the mental health supports to be able to process that, then it can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, or acute stress injury, or disorder. And that can lead to people needing to leave that career because they can’t do the work anymore.”

A national report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that 30% of first responders develop behavioral health conditions, such as depression or post traumatic stress disorder.

SECURE is the only statewide peer support program that offers mental health services across all emergency service sectors, including firefighters, law enforcement, emergency medical responders, 911 dispatchers, ski patrol and former or current employees of the Department of Corrections.

The SECURE program provides counseling after a critical incident and offers training to first responders so they can support other members of their department.

Last year, the program held 13 debriefings after a critical incident which affected 160 first responders, and 66 people have been trained as peer supporters, Busch said.

“Regardless of an affiliation, if you are paid or volunteer, if you’re a first responder, you should be able to have access to mental health counseling and support."
Stephanie Busch, Vermont Department of Health

Some of the larger departments — such as the Vermont State Police, the Department of Corrections and the Professional Firefighters of Vermont — have peer support groups that offer services after a traumatic event to first responders within those departments.

But a lot of small, rural departments don’t have those same resources. Busch says the state wants to keep the program going after the federal funding runs out.

“Regardless of an affiliation, if you are paid or volunteer, if you’re a first responder, you should be able to have access to mental health counseling and support,” she said.

Several first responders gather around a table as part of a training at the Burlington Fire Department Station 1.
Eric Cochran
/
Courtesy
First responders attend a training at the Burlington Fire Department Station 1. The training was part of the Department of Health's SECURE program, which has been paid for with federal grants that are running out next year.

The Burlington Fire Department has had its own peer support mental health program since 2018. Department captain Mark McDonough said it was started after a few members of the department had to leave due to the stress of the job.

“We lost four very tenured members of the department, and senior officers, all due to mental health challenges that mostly presented themselves as either drug or alcohol addiction," he said. "And that was kind of the moment where it was like, this isn’t right. We have to be doing something about it.”

McDonough, who has been with BFD for 18 years, is vice-chair of the Vermont Emergency Service Provider Wellness Commission, which lawmakers established in 2021 to help look at what’s working across the state, and where there are holes.

“It’s no longer taboo to say, ‘I’m not OK.’ The saying is, ‘It’s OK to not be OK.’ And people are starting to truly understand and believe that."
Mark McDonough, Burlington Fire Department

He says for a long time it’s been hard for first responders to ask for help, but that’s changing as younger firefighters enter the industry and expect — and can accept — the help.

“It’s no longer taboo to say, ‘I’m not OK.’ The saying is, ‘It’s OK to not be OK.’ And people are starting to truly understand and believe that,” he said. “And then the success stories are being shared, and so other members are saying, ‘You know what, I think it would help if I went down to that program, or if I met with the clinician every once in a while and just talked through some of these things I’m struggling with so that I can be a happier, healthier person at home and at work.'”

Along with asking for more funding, the commission hopes to develop a training plan to cut down on physical injuries for first responders.

The group also wants to encourage every department in the state to introduce the training into its local training programs, come up with ways to support the families of first responders, and develop a list of existing mental health programs and qualified clinicians who are trauma informed and able to work with the unique needs of first responders.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or contact reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman:

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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. 
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