COLUMBUS, Ohio — Governor Mike DeWine announced a new initiative Monday to support Ohio’s first responders and help them process the stress and pressure of their jobs.
The Ohio Office of First Responder Wellness is a new division within the Ohio Department of Public Safety’s Office of Criminal Justice Services.
According to the Governor’s office, the new office will provide support and training to law enforcement, fire, EMS, dispatch, corrections and Ohio-based military. Steven Click, who spent more than 35 years with the Ohio State Highway Patrol, will serve as the director.
Click said his main job will be to connect first responders with mental health and wellness resources.
“Public safety, like a lot of other areas of society, are looking at staffing issues right now, so it's even more important than ever to keep those folks that we have healthy, safe, in a good space,” Click said, adding that support at the state level is important.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, more law enforcement officers die by suicide than in the line of duty. Law enforcement officers also report higher rates of depression, PTSD and burnout than the general public.
Click said he thinks there is a misconception about first responders: that one situation or incident is what causes stress or PTSD.
“And the reality is, and the individuals that I've talked to over the years of doing this work, that one thing is normally not what brings them there. It is that 15, 20, 25 years of those ‘one things.’ And that's what really starts to set in,” Click said.
He noted that a big predictor of someone having PTSD is a “perceived lack of social or organizational support.”
“Whether it's true or not, it's the perception that I don't have that support for my agency or I don't have that support from the community,” Click said. “I'm going out and whether I'm police, fire, EMS, any of those, I'm going out and risking my very life, to help and be there for those people, and then if I perceive that there is no appreciation, there's no support for that, that sacrifice that I'm making for being away from my family, for putting myself in harm's way, that can be a leading predictor of post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Click said there are “a lot of people doing great work here in the state of Ohio, a lot of people doing some phenomenal work, and it just gives us an opportunity to kind of be that central point of information passing through, and I'm able to pass that information along to other individuals.”
He also noted that while there are some “amazing programs” in the Cleveland area for first responders, other parts of the state may not have those resources available.
In the Columbus area, one police department already has a Support Services Bureau.
Lieutenant Nick Tabernik with the Dublin Police Department heads up that bureau and thinks the statewide office is a great step.
“It's something that we could have used 15 years ago when I started, probably even before that, but it's really exciting that it's now really coming to fruition,” Tabernik said. “And it undoubtedly will help first responders throughout the state and probably throughout the nation.”
He described the state office as “vitally important” as a central point of contact for first responders to connect with each other and with mental health resources.
At his department, with Click’s help, they were able to establish a peer support program.
“When you start looking internally and you start thinking of a career full of different incidents, whether they were high-impact or maybe just accumulation of different incidents over an entire 10, 15, 20, 30-year career for a law enforcement officer or other first responders, you start thinking of the toll and the strain that that takes on a first responder and their family and the entire organization,” Tabernik said. “So when you think through that, you really have to realize that we need help as much as anybody does. We need mental health resources. We need people to be there, maybe just listen to us at times.”
He added, “The goal of it is to benefit our members so that ultimately they can be their best selves when they're serving our public.”
Click said he believes Ohio’s first responders “are some of the most resilient people in the world that I know. They're great at everything you throw at them, they're like, ‘okay, we'll deal with this.’” He said they’ve also done an “outstanding job” of working through the challenges of the pandemic.
“Ohio's first responders want to be in a good place, they want to be healthy, they want to come home to their families,” Click said. “I’m retired from the patrol and then I have the opportunity to do this, and my goal is to get them all to that point where they can retire and be in a good place and like what they're doing and be able to spend time with their families.”
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