Officials fund mental health program for Pulse massacre first responders
The program is intended to teach first responders how to care for themselves after crisis events and recognize peers who may have PTSD
By Stephen Hudak
ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — Orange County commissioners agreed this week to fund a mental-health training program intended to help first responders and others struggling to shake free of the horrors they saw at the Pulse nightclub massacre.
“Forty-nine innocent people killed at one time,” said Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings, who responded to Pulse as the county sheriff on June 12, 2016. “That’s something akin to what you might see on a battlefield in war.”
The mass shooting at the LGBTQ club traumatized not only Pulse patrons but also Orlando-area police, firefighters and paramedics summoned to the crime scene and others whose duties brought them face-to-face with the aftermath.
It still haunts some emergency-room doctors and nurses — and employees of the Medical Examiner’s Office who had to collect bodies from the grim scene, said Donna Wyche, manager of Orange County’s division of Mental Health and Homeless Issues.
“People think, ‘Well, it’s 2½ years later, they’ve moved on.’ Maybe. But maybe not,” she said Tuesday. “The extreme trauma of an event like that can stick with people a long time.”
The training program, created and run by the St. Petersburg College Center for Public Safety Innovation, is intended to teach first responders how to care for themselves after crisis events and recognize peers who may need help coping with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
The county awarded the college $244,000 from a federal anti-terrorism grant to pay for the program.
PTSD, as defined by the Mayo Clinic, is a mental-health condition triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms often include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety.
Wyche said the program could benefit law-enforcement officers and other front-line public-safety personnel deal with the trauma they see in their daily duties.
“There’s an after-effect on the cop who sees kids killed in a domestic-violence incident, on the paramedic called to a drowning of a child,” she said. “Different people handle stress and process trauma in very different ways.”
In the days after the Pulse tragedy, Wyche served friends and relatives of victims at an assistance center set up in suites at Camping World Stadium to connect grieving families to counseling, spiritual care, funeral providers, lodging and legal aid.
She said she can’t drive past the stadium now without thinking of the faces of heartbroken families.
“I feel how I felt during that time when I was seeing families and survivors,” Wyche said. “Memories of [comfort] dogs, the FBI, the sadness, all that stuff just comes back.”
She said some first responders try to ignore painful memories and push on — as if horror is just a routine part of the job.
“They think, ‘People expect me to be better than this, to be able to put it behind me and face every day,’” she said.
Wyche cited as an example the work of the medical examiner’s employees after Pulse.
They are trained professionals but you can't un-see what you've seen, she said.
“Do you think, when they pass [Pulse] on Orange Avenue, they don’t remember over and over and over what they saw,” she said. “I can tell you they do.”
Since the mass shooting at Pulse, Omar Delgado of the Eatonville Police Department and Gerry Realin of the Orlando Police Department claimed disability from post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the tragedy.
Delgado was among the first officers to go into the nightclub. Realin worked on a team that removed bodies.
The U.S. Justice Department provided the funding for the training program through its Office for Victims of Crime, which offers grants to help communities offset costs of assisting victims after incidents involving mass violence or domestic terrorism.
The grant is a sliver of a larger $8.4 million federal award to help Orlando, Orange County and other jurisdictions recover costs from the tragedy.
Some of the larger grant was funneled to UCF RESTORES, a University of Central Florida mental-health clinic that began in 2010 to treat veterans with combat-related PTSD but has expanded services expanded to treat first responders and survivors of mass shootings.
A career lawman who took office as mayor in December, Demings said the scene at Pulse was extraordinarily horrific.
He said he is aware of first responders who still struggle emotionally and with their mental health because of what they saw on that night.
“Some of them were not even able to return to work,” he said.
Copyright 2019 Orlando Sentinel