Ga. peer counseling program expands to help first responders deal with trauma
The Georgia Office of Public Safety Support was created after legislation supporting the effort to formalize peer counseling for first responders passed in 2018
Maya T. Prabhu
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
AUGUSTA, Ga. — After nearly two decades in law enforcement, Cordero Foster responded to a call earlier this year that forced him to face the 18 years of trauma he's witnessed while doing his job.
In February, the Richmond County sheriff's deputy responded to a car crash where a young child was cradling her mother's head and saying "Mom, wake up."
Foster said the incident brought back the years of tragedy he's seen while serving as a deputy, corrections officer and rescue specialist.
"From there, it put me on a downward spiral," he said. "I could see all of the accidents that I used to work. I could see all of the dead bodies. I could see all of the murders. Then I was dealing with my own losses in my family over the years. That incident kind of triggered a spiraling effect, and I needed to reach out for help."
Foster is one of the thousands of law enforcement officers, firefighters, paramedics and dispatchers who have sought support through state-run programs offering peer counseling.
The need is growing. For the past year, first responders have had to navigate the stress and death of the COVID-19 pandemic and tackle rising crime across the state. And high-profile shootings of Black and brown men and women by law enforcement officers across the country have put them under increased scrutiny and spurred calls to reimagine the way communities are policed.
"You're told that with the line of work this is, this is what you signed up for," Foster said. "And it was always looked at as being a weakness for you to seek help or for you to tell people that you were struggling with these issues."
A law passed in 2018 created the Georgia Office of Public Safety Support, run through the state Department of Public Safety, to offer formalized peer counseling to the state's first responders. Being able to talk to someone who has similar experiences helps encourage first responders to speak openly about what they're feeling.
James Woodall, a lobbyist with the Southern Center for Human Rights, said while he believed the legislation was written as a "good-faith effort" to address the state's mental health crisis, more needs to be done to successfully revamp Georgia's police departments. Woodall said the past 12 to 18 months have seen an increase in state violence — whether that was through fatal police shootings or violent interactions with protesters in the aftermath of those incidents.
"The kind of reactive response to these events is, 'Well, let's get them into therapy.' No, let's right the wrongs of what the system is doing to communities," he said. "We have to do a much more creative and innovative job of addressing the state violence. Because that's what's getting them to this point (of needing therapy) in the first place."
Now fully staffed, five peer counselors, two mental health professionals, a deputy director and a director provide help to first responders who have historically said they felt there was nowhere to turn when the weight of their work began to consume them. But when they learn of the program, they use it.
In its first year, fiscal 2020, the Office of Public Safety Support provided peer counseling to about 850 first responders. In fiscal 2021, which ended June 30, peer counselors spoke with about 2,000 first responders.
"We're able to offer psychological first aid to Georgia's public safety personnel," said Wes Horne, the agency's director.
State officials launched the Office of Public Safety Support in July 2019 with the mission of centralizing and standardizing the practice of offering peer counseling to the state's first responders.
Many law enforcement agencies across the state, including the Department of Public Safety and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, had their own peer counseling program, but the training required and support offered varied from office to office.
"This now gives it some structure and the state is offering it out to all of public safety," Horne said. "The umbrella is pretty broad."
And while the program is based in Atlanta, the department offers a one-week, 40-hour certification course for first responders who wish to bring peer counseling to their agency. About 15 first responders took advantage of the free training last week in Augusta.
Billy Jones, a deputy with the Glasscock County Sheriff's Department, said it was his desire to have access to something similar to peer counseling during his 22 years in law enforcement that caused him to sign up to become a counselor himself. Jones said while he was grateful to take part in the training, it caused him to face emotions he'd buried for decades and he felt anxious throughout the week.
"Once I found out about this training, I decided, 'Hey you know what: No. 1, it may be therapeutic for me to move past what I still tuck away, but I also want to help other people who've never thought that they could move past these traumatic events in their life."
For some at the training, dredging up and facing buried feelings head-on was cathartic.
"I feel like my mind has been clearer than it's been in years," said Michael Stead, a lieutenant with Columbia County Fire and Rescue. "I'm putting things in a category where they're supposed to be in your mind and they're just not floating around out there and causing issues all the time."
First responders learn about mental health and peer support and how to offer that support in group and one-on-one settings. They study concepts surrounding psychological crises and techniques for self-care. Peers typically are matched with first responders who have a similar background and experienced a similar traumatic incident.
And they learn when they've maxed out their training — of being a sounding board and shoulder to lean on for first responders who've experienced trauma — they refer them to a mental health professional or program.
The new department has mostly picked up steam through word of mouth — where someone who's received counseling from a trained peer tells others that the service is offered. And demand is growing.
Peer counselors from the state agency will travel across Georgia in the next six months to provide nine more certification training programs. Nearly 40 agencies across the state have requested a training in their area.
'We all need a support system'
State officials say they don't keep detailed records of the first responders who receive peer counseling as a way to protect their privacy. Officials couldn't say which field most participants worked in, what incident brought them to the department, if they had to be referred to a mental health professional or program, if their difficulties kept them from returning to work or any demographic information.
Stacey Collins, deputy director of the the Office of Public Safety Support, said first responders usually seek out peer counseling themselves. Peer counselors also are aware of major incidents, such as one where a police officer shoots and kills a suspect or a colleague takes his or her own life, and will seek out that agency to offer support.
But sometimes, Collins said, it's just a cumulation of experiences on the job that causes some first responders to seek support.
"Whether its somebody that has worked crime scenes for 20 years and just over and over seen really horrific things, or whether it's a dispatcher that's taken bad call after bad call with no time to decompress," Collins said. "It just really comes from this line of work that a lot of first responders are very good at putting that away for a certain amount of time. But inevitably, very often, at some point, it will come back."
Keegan Merritt, a former Henry County police officer, joined the state peer counseling team after going through two traumatic experiences during his eight years on the job.
In 2016, he shot and killed a suspect who had barricaded himself underneath a home. That's when he was first exposed to peer counseling through the Georgia State Patrol's program. Seeing the benefits, he worked with Henry County to create its own version of the program. Then in 2019, he was shot while on the job and unable to return to work. Later that year, he joined the Office of Public Safety Support.
Because of his background, Merritt often speaks with officers who have either been shot or shot someone while in the line of duty.
"Its not easy being a police officer in 2021," Merritt said. "They need to know there's some kind of support there for them."
Philip Webster, an officer in the Savannah Police Department, said after fatally shooting a suspect in December — somebody he was familiar with from his time patrolling — he had trouble sleeping.
He said his conversations with Merritt helped put him on the path to feeling like himself again.
"It always freaked me out. I felt like that would make me weaker. Those are the thoughts that would go through my mind," he said of his stance on counseling before meeting Merritt, who is 6 feet 5 and weighs 220 pounds.
"But when I saw Keegan, when he came to meet me, I saw that this was the person who was talking to me," Webster said. "The perception of being a big, macho tough guy trying to handle your own problems went out the window. Humans aren't built to handle their problems alone. We all need a support system."
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