Q&A: How Ohio is prioritizing first responder wellness
The mission of the Ohio Department of Public Safety's Office of First Responder Wellness is to encourage self-care and mental wellness for Ohio’s first responders
Suicide is a profoundly serious threat to the health and well-being of American first responders. In fact, “Police officers and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty, a troubling trend that researchers say didn't improve in 2020 despite national suicide rates decreasing,” said a June 2022 news report in USA Today.
In an effort to tangibly address this disturbing trend, the Ohio Department of Public Safety has established the Ohio Office of First Responder Wellness. Its mission is “to encourage self-care and mental wellness for Ohio’s first responder community including law enforcement, fire, emergency medical services, dispatch, corrections and Ohio-based military,” according to a news release from Ohio Governor Mike DeWine. “The office will provide specialized support and training to help emergency-response agencies proactively address post-traumatic stress and other traumas caused by factors that are unique to first-responder careers.”
Steven M. Click is the director of the Ohio Office of First Responder Wellness. He retired as a lieutenant with the Ohio State Highway Patrol in November 2018 after 36 years of service.
“I have been involved in peer support since first being trained in 1992,” Click told Police1. “I led the Ohio State Highway Patrol Member’s Assistance Team from its inception until my retirement. I was twice deployed to New York City after the 9/11 attacks to assist their peer support team. And I serve as a resource to a number of state and local initiatives including the Ohio Suicide Prevention Foundation First Responder workgroup, the Ohio Mental Health and Addiction Services First Responder Subcommittee, and the Ohio Attorney General’s Criminal Justice/Mental Health Task Force.”
Police1 recently spoke with Director Click about the mission of the Ohio Office of First Responder Wellness to ease the stress and suffering of first responders.
Police1: Why was the Ohio Office of First Responder Wellness established?
Steven Click: Mentally healthy first responders are able to better serve their communities. They enjoy better family relationships, are physically healthier and tend to remain in their professions longer. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine created this office to serve as a centralized resource for police and fire departments, EMS units and other first responder agencies to actively place an ongoing focus on wellness with assistance from those who’ve faced some of the same unique on-the-job stress.
In the past several years, the mental health of first responders has become a priority for government and first responder leadership. Leaders are seeing the toll these occupations take on their personnel, often realizing the toll that it has taken on themselves.
Police1: Just how serious is the issue of first responder wellness?
Steven Click: First H.E.L.P., a national organization that tracks first responder suicides and assists the survivors, estimates that 2.5 to 3 times the number of first responders take their own life as opposed to being killed as the result of a work-related event. The number of reported suicides is also estimated to be 40%-45% of the actual number who die by suicide.
To date in 2022, First H.E.L.P. shows 116 reported first responder suicides. Ohio has lost six first responders to reported suicides this year.
Police1: How does the Ohio Office of First Responder Wellness promote mental health and well-being?
Steven Click: The Ohio Office of First Responder Wellness provides training courses to agencies and organizations in the area of first responder wellness. These courses have been developed in cooperation with experts in the field. They are provided in-person, virtually, or in combination, depending on the needs of the agency.
The office also provides resources and connects first responder agencies with mental health resources in their communities.
Police1: What level of funding and staff do you have to support the Office, and for how long?
Steven Click: As this office is a priority of Governor DeWine, there is no sunset date for the critical services provided to Ohio’s first responders.
Office staff members include one full-time employee and one part-time employee with experienced and credentialed contract employees, who are aligned with wellness programs goals, assisting to reach a wider audience – both physically and figuratively. State General Revenue Funds and federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars pay the lead employee’s salary, but the office doesn’t have an actual budget per se.
Police1: How do you help first responders overcome the stigma of asking for help?
Steven Click: By going out, talking with first responders and normalizing the idea of asking for help, I reinforce the idea that asking for help is not a sign of weakness but actually a sign you want to make sure you are at your very best every time you respond to a request for service. It is just as important as being physically fit.
Police1: How does this program fit into Ohio's larger first responder illness initiatives?
Steven Click: We are very fortunate in having the support of Governor DeWine, the Director of the Ohio Department of Public Safety and various first responders groups and organizations. This allows us to serve first responders from law enforcement, fire, EMS, dispatch and corrections across the state. The courses and resources are provided at no charge to agencies or their personnel.
We also work very closely with Ohio Mental Health and Addiction Services, the various public safety leadership organizations, as well as local mental health and recovery boards across the state.
As well, the Office of First Responder Wellness serves as a resource for the Ohio Emergency Management Administration as they provide funding for wellness through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.
Police1: Where does the Office stand now in terms of rolling out services to first responders?
Steven Click: To date, in 2022, we have provided 95 presentations to 2,345 individuals. In 2021, we provided 103 presentations for 4,089 individuals.
We are on track to surpass 2021’s numbers. We continue to assist agencies and their personnel as requested and look for additional resources.
Police1: How do you know that your wellness initiatives are actually helping first responders?
Steven Click: We routinely receive messages, calls and emails from agencies indicating that the training courses we have provided have made a difference for their personnel or even themselves.
Police1: What advice do you have for other states wanting to create their own Wellness Offices?
Steven Click: Find someone with both lived experience as a first responder and also some background and experience in mental health. This person does not need to be a clinician but it is equally important for them to be able to work with first responders, their agencies and mental health providers. Being able to understand terminology and culture is very important to be successful in both worlds.
This is not a 9-5 position. Needs come at all hours of the day, including weekends and holidays. Support has to come at the State level in order to be successful.
We are always here to assist in any way we can.
To learn more about the Ohio Office of First Responder Wellness and how its knowledge can help first responders directly and agencies wanting to create their own wellness programs, contact Steven M. Click at firstname.lastname@example.org.