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Tom Platt, Professor, Emergency Medicine, left, with Sheila Roth, Professor of Social Work, Carlow University, center, and Eric Meyer, Professor, Counseling, right

Tom Platt, Professor, Emergency Medicine, left, with Sheila Roth, Professor of Social Work, Carlow University, center, and Eric Meyer, Professor, Counseling, right

They announce their arrival with flashing lights and screeching sirens. They assess the scene quickly and immediately go to work, providing both physical and emotional support under the worst possible conditions. Their mere presence often brings comfort, knowing that trained professionals are here to help. But where do emergency responders such as firefighters, law enforcement, 911 dispatchers and emergency medical services (EMS) providers turn when they experience the mental health impacts of trauma and other job stressors? The answer is complicated. A few seek peer support. Some deny they are in crisis. Many internalize their feelings, creating the potential for mental health problems to worsen.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, approximately 30% of first responders develop behavioral health conditions, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), alcohol and other substance abuse problems, sleep deprivation and thoughts of suicide. Moreover, many of these problems co-occur, creating more complex challenges. While mental health treatment programs for first responders exist, one study found that 68% of emergency responders would not recommend these programs for a number of reasons. Emergency response personnel have concerns over privacy, scheduling issues, lack of emergency response cultural awareness on the part of mental health professionals, and the stigma that surrounds mental health treatment in general.

Professor Eric Meyer, director, Clinical Mental Health Counseling, says that the new Pitt Center for Emergency Responder Wellness (PCERW) is a clinical innovation hub that removes many of these barriers to treatment.

Developed by Meyer in collaboration with Emergency Medicine Professor Thomas Platt and Adjunct Professor Sheila Roth, the Center employs evidence-based, cognitive-behavioral interventions that have been culturally adapted to meet the unique needs of first responders.

Built on a foundation of knowledge acquired from the scientific literature on evidence-based mental health treatment, the Western Pennsylvania Center for Emergency Medicine, the Pittsburgh Office of Community Health and Safety, several local peer support networks and the International Association of Fire Fighters, the new Pitt Center is a resource for first responders, developed by a team that includes first responders and culturally sensitive mental health professionals.

“Studies show that few clinicians know and understand the emergency responder culture, and this limits the effectiveness of treatment,” notes Meyer. “We are providing comprehensive training so our Center clinicians fully understand the unique needs of this critical workforce.”

Roth and Platt contributed their expertise to the development of emergency responder cultural awareness training for graduate students and recent graduates of the Counseling program. At the same time, they worked to adapt training previously used with firefighters and law enforcement to train peer support specialists who will serve as bridges to professional mental health services.

“Our team is partnering with local emergency responder departments to assess their peer support needs in order to provide tailored group trainings,” notes Meyer.

Since it received funding in July 2021, the Pitt Center has trained four students and professionals as clinicians, treated nine first responders and provided two peer support training groups. Meyer and colleagues have also applied for two larger grants to expand this work. Nicole Fuhr (BS ’19, MS ’22) is a recent Pitt Counseling graduate and a National Certified Counselor, and currently works as a behavioral health therapist at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital’s Bellefield Clinic in addition to serving as a counselor at the new Center. She values the training she received to work with first responders.

“The unique culture of first responders is often overlooked,” notes Fuhr.

“By learning more about the nature of their profession and the tremendous amount of stress they experience on every call, we are able to help provide a level of care that they might not otherwise receive.”

“It has been an amazing opportunity to learn more about the various types of emergency responders and learn more about what their day-to-day jobs entail,” agrees Center Counselor Emily Kirschner (BS ’19, MS ’22), another recent Pitt Counseling graduate.

“At the beginning of every session, I check in to see if there are any pressing issues that occurred between sessions,” explains Fuhr. “We cover mindfulness, the nature of emotions and why we have them, cognitive flexibility, emotional avoidance and other emotion-driven behaviors.

“The therapy has been welcomed by my clients,” Fuhr continues. Meyer notes that, “Our preliminary data supports the success of our cultural awareness trainings in that our clinicians are building strong working therapeutic alliances with their clients.”

According to Platt, “The interprofessional collaboration between the Emergency Medicine and Counseling programs is a shining example of how we at SHRS can share our expertise to expand the knowledge of our current students and contribute to a better quality of life for our emergency responders and the people they serve.”

“As we expand our services, the Center will generate knowledge that enhances understanding of the impact of traumatic stress on health and well-being in emergency responder personnel and other trauma-exposed populations, greatly enhancing our overall impact,” adds Meyer.


This article was featured in the Fall 2022 edition of FACETS.


Published March 21, 2023.