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VSP mental health program checks in on first responders

Published: Oct. 14, 2020 at 8:32 AM EDT
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WILLISTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Police and first responders are often the first to arrive to a tragedy, putting them on the front line of trauma.

The Members Assistance Team is designed with one goal in mind -- extend the career of members of state police and have them retire as healthy both physically and mentally as when they started. A major part of that is catering to mental health.

“It’s really a team designed to ensure the wellbeing of all of our members," said Vermont State Police Lt. Robert Lucas, whose team is within the department.

The MAT has been around for over 15 years, but he says it has really gained traction in the last five years. At the beginning of this year, they decided all troopers who respond to deadly crashes or traumatic events would receive the service. They intend to continue to be proactive in arriving at incidents as well as initiating an immediate follow-up.

“The stressors we encounter throughout the years of a career, we equate those to kind of like putting boxes on a truck. At a certain point that truck fills up," said Lt. Lucas.

It is the MAT’s job to help offload those stressors before crisis strikes. The team is made up of 11 troopers, four dispatchers, one civilian, two clinicians, and a pastor. Lt. Lucas says whether the meetings are formal or informal, everyone can expect check-ins. “The beneficial conversations that are had are really just the one-on-one conversations that we have, both in the troop room and throughout our day," he said.

And the service isn’t only for troopers in the field. “It can be kind of intense when the phone rings and it’s like, ‘Oh, what is this going to be,’" said Melanie Daniell, who has worked as an emergency communication dispatcher for almost five years.

Dispatchers are the first on duty when people call, meaning that they are exposed to trauma too. Daniell says having a team in-house dedicated to mental health as opposed to having to go somewhere else is invaluable. “It’s very helpful to know that there are people within the department that you can go to that understand all the basics and they understand what it is like," she said. “It means a lot to know that there are outreach people that you can go to and that they are going to understand what you are talking about. It’s slightly different than talking about it to your husband or someone at home because they don’t understand. They have no idea what this job entails and what it’s like. Speaking to someone with no personal experience with it is different.”

And Daniell says sometimes all you need is just to say a little bit about what you are dealing with on the job. “You don’t even have to say any more if you don’t want to. That’s enough to have kind of unloaded and just sharing it with someone so you’re not just dealing with it on your own," she said.

Lt. Lucas says troopers have come to expect a call from the MAT, and whether they choose to continue to use it for days, months, or years, they make sure follow-up is always done.

They are also looking into ways to ensure that every department responding to painful scenes can have access to mental health check-ins as well.

Copyright 2020 WCAX. All rights reserved.

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