How Summit County first responders cope with the traumatic experiences they live through every day
July 21, 2018
People come from all over the world to know the joy of trekking through our forests and seeing the world from the top of the mountains. Summit County is a natural wonderland.
But Summit is still a community, one with real people with real problems and real tragedies. While so many spend their time here experiencing all the beauty this place has to offer, first responders must live much of their lives seeing the dark side of life in a resort town, carrying what they saw with them into bed every night. Doing this day after day takes a toll, and first responders often need rescuers of their own.
Mike Waxler has been a paramedic for eight years, currently serving for Summit Fire & EMS. During that time he has seen things in Summit that most of us are usually shielded from.
"We see the other side of what's going on here," Waxler said. "We see the drug abusers, the alcoholics, the domestic violence, the suicides. I'm sure it's all proportionate to any other place, but you won't necessarily see that up here when you're here on vacation."
Seeing the worst aspects of Summit has a way of changing their perspective of these majestic mountains.
"You start to realize that it's not never-never land," Waxler said. "People get sick, people get hurt. My first few years, it seemed like a perfectly idyllic place. But that's not reality. That's not reality anywhere."
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With a young, healthy and active population, most of the major calls Waxler responds to involve serious injuries and trauma. Some of the hardest calls for paramedics or police officers in the mountains are suicides, which have become tragically common. As of June, Summit County had eight suicides this year. That surpassed the five from all of 2017 and follows a national trend of increasing suicide rates.
When first responders tackle calls about suicides or potential suicides, the first priority is safety. Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons and his deputies are often dispatched to accompany EMTs and paramedics on calls involving people who may be at threat to themselves or others. Those deputies often have their own preparation for handling or de-escalating a mental health crisis.
"These deputies go through Crisis Intervention Training, or CIT," FitzSimons said while pointing to a CIT pin on his uniform. "It involves rigorous training, including 40 hours of academic schooling and scenario-based training with actors on how to identify and help people work through crisis."
Once the area is secured from any threats, or if tragedy has already struck and it's too late to help the suicidal person, medics like Waxler have to go in and do their job rendering aid or transporting a body to the hospital.
"Suicides are more common than you'd think here in paradise," Waxler said. "A lot of people come up here for that purpose."
Waxler described how people from out of town come to Summit, sometimes checking into hotels or going to a scenic overlook before they take their own lives. They seem to want to find serenity in their last moments, seeing the beauty before letting go.
Hangings, self-inflicted gunshots, pills and chemical ingestion are the most common methods for suicide in Summit. Waxler has found his own way of dealing with what he has to see and work with every day.
"My way to deal with a horrible call is to get back on the horse every time," Waxler said. "The next call helps me start getting back to a routine that helps me feel normal again and remember that not everything is going to be like that. But if the universe lines up in a certain way and we get three horrible calls in a row, that's when you might start to get a little freaked out."
To help cope with these experiences, first responders often turn to crewmates who know what they're going through.
"There's a sense of knowing you're all in it together, that you all saw the same thing," Waxler said. "We kind of pay attention and try to police each other. If someone seems to be acting strangely, like disconnecting from the crew when they used to be social, it might be something bothering them from a recent call. We try to chime in, ask what's up. We try to emphasize that we don't have to be macho and that it's OK to talk about these things."
If it seems they need to really talk to someone, first responders can connect with peer support groups that have more experience dealing with these issues and how to cope with them.
If the trauma seems deep, affecting the person's job and ability to self-heal, a specialist can be called in to work with them one-on-one.
Dr. David Christiansen is a psychologist who is often consulted by the sheriff's office to present a crisis-training course called "Psychological Survival in a Violent Career," as well as to counsel officers dealing with a traumatic situation. Christiansen explains that most people will never understand the sheer amount of stress and trauma first responders go through, which can result in post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological issues.
"While a layperson may experience a traumatic incident several times in a lifetime, a first responder may have an equal number in a single month or even week," Christiansen said. "Repeated exposure to trauma means that the officer develops a pattern of coping strategies that may be healthy, such as talking with a spouse or colleague, or unhealthy, such as playing video games instead of sleeping, or drinking excessively, or isolation. Over time, these ineffective strategies may lead to more serious issues such as very poor marital communication or addictive behaviors."
Christiansen and other counselors step in when these officers have a need for help, but it's not as easy to crack into the tough armor first responders build up to hide their mental health from people they don't know.
"The most common denominator is the officer's ability to trust another individual with emotional reactions which can be seen as weak or unprofessional," Christansen said. "The most important aspect of working with an officer is forming a trusting bond with them, and earning the trust of LEOs (law enforcement officers) and other first responders can be challenging."
When it comes to mental health, it's important to intervene early. To that end, Christiansen offers advice to first responders on how to treat a mental health crisis before it starts.
"LEOs and other first responders would do well to accept that their jobs are unique and mentally demanding," Christiansen said. " They would do well to develop a plan for what they will do when trauma hits home — to have a plan of who to talk to and what pitfalls are most likely to snag them."
Treatment often begins with learning coping strategies that are universally sound for anyone wishing to heal the mind.
"Good mental health means having good relationships, some physical release through exercise or activities, predictable coping strategies such as meditation, personal engagement with others, and restoring the circadian rhythm of sleep and appetite," Christiansen said.
Finally, Christiansen said that simple expressions of gratitude from the public go a long way to help first responders find the wind beneath their sails when they flip on the sirens and drive out into the dark, dangerous night.
"Most officers I've worked with appreciate a simple 'thank you,' and when appropriate, a deeper expression of gratitude such as a short anecdote of why they are thankful," Christiansen said. "First responders as a group are shy about receiving recognition for their work, but few will deny that simple words at unexpected times often hit home and are curative."