PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri is taking aim at the stigma of mental health problems. He announced the launch of the Mental Health for Heroes Foundation this week.
Before Heroes, Gualtieri said first responders at his agency would go through employee assistance programs, but those were rarely used. Now the providers who are helping are specialized to work with first responders.
“The job can weigh on someone very heavily and it doesn’t always stop when they clock out and they end up taking that home with them,” said Dr. Brandy Benson, a clinical phycologist.
Dr. Benson is a former correctional officer psychologist. She specializes in working with first responders.
“This is a really good resources to add that added support to also feel like they’re connecting with someone that intimately understands the unique factors that come with that job,” she said.
Gualtieri said the goal of the launch is to break the stigma of law enforcement getting help that they may need.
“This is a tough job and while many agencies provide services for their members, some are more limited,” said Gualtieri. “This program will help eliminate the stigma and provide much needed resources to all of the men and women that put their lives on the line to keep our community safe.”
He said the key is anonymous services by specialized providers. Fifty members of the sheriff’s office are already seeking free mental health services through the program.
“They deal with everyone else’s crisis of the day but they too have issues in their personal and professional lives they need help with,” said the sheriff.
If they don’t face their struggles, Gualtieri said it could lead to first responders leaving the profession or could escalate to become dangerous.
The sheriff’s office said about 30% of first responders develop behavioral health conditions including depression, aggressive behavior and PTSD. Nationwide, 186 first responders took their own lives in 2020 and 171 died by suicide last year, including at least four Florida officers.
“Early intervention, getting them on the right track, getting them the services is going to allow them to be healthy, mentally healthy, and more importantly do what we need them to do which is to help keep the community safe,” said Gualtieri.
The sheriff’s office says despite the losses nationwide, less than five percent of agencies have suicide prevention or mental health programs.