If you or someone you know is dealing with drug and alcohol problems, suicidal thoughts, depression, PTSD, Ann Marie Farina has a virtual space where first responders can find help or a listening ear.
Farina is president of the Code Green Campaign, a nonprofit organization in Spokane, Wash., that provides mental health resources and education for first responders.
Farina knows her audience — she spent 15 years as a paramedic but no longer holds EMS credentials.
Code Green maintains a free database with nationwide resources that anyone can access. It includes peer support resources, chaplains and licensed professional counselors all specifically trained to work with first responders.
The database was created in 2015, and in four years, Farina said it has had more than 150,000 site visits. It holds about 200 resources spread across the U.S. and also includes some international resources for first responders.
Code Green helps you tell your story
Storytelling is one of the best ways to relate to other people’s experiences. First responders often bond over all the stories and hardships they share. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to dig into that emotional pit where the stories live.
As more is learned about mental health disorders, such as depression and PTSD, the treatment options vary greatly from person to person.
And for some people, talking about a past trauma can bring it back to life and leave the person feeling more anxious, depressed or scared, according to mental health experts.
Code Green started an online storytelling project in 2014 so first responders could unload their tragedies of the day in anonymous fashion — and without the fear of ridicule or stigmatization.
“Our storytelling project allows people to tell their story in their own words … so that it gives people an outlet,” Farina said. “We know that narrative therapy helps people organize the traumatic memory in their brain.”
Stories include those bad calls no one wants to get, like a hanging that jolted one first responder into painfully acknowledging the time when a sibling had hung herself. Others tell stories about suicidal thoughts or the after effects of PTSD.
Farina said they have published about 500 stories, and have about 200 submissions to review.
According to mental health professionals storytelling helps the brain create new “memory connections,” something thought to have therapeutic benefit.
The idea is the story helps the brain realize that the traumatic event is no longer happening. In essence, it lets the brain rest and stop reliving a bad memory, which is often associated with PTSD.
Besides sharing anonymous stories, Farina said some people upload artwork to accompany their stories.
First responder mental health education and training
Farina and two Code Green board members speak regularly at conferences like EMS World, EMS Today and EMS Pro Expo.
Topics range from general mental health to resiliency to mental health for management, which teaches managers how to identify the mental health needs of first responders. They also touch on topics such as bullying and harassment at work.
Between speaking engagements and providing training for first responders, Farina is constantly on the move.
Code Green brings training to organizations interested in providing more mental health education to first responders. Educational topics are the same ones they speak about at national conferences.
“We will go to a geographic area and do a series of first responder classes over a span of a week, going to various agencies like fire departments, ambulance services and hospitals,” she said.
By far, the most popular class agencies seek out from Code Green is the general education class, Farina said.
“We teach this one the most often because with first responders’ mental health, there is not a lot of education,” she said. “It’s not covered in depth in EMT, paramedic and firefighter education.”
The general education class includes:
- A mental health overview.
- Statistics on first responder suicide and risk factors.
- Tutorial on the warning signs for people in crisis.
- How to talk to first responders when help is needed.
- Ways to get help for first responders.
- The idea of resiliency.
Other courses include a resiliency course, titled “Don’t Let Your Bathtub Overflow,” and a course for managers, called “What to Do When It’s Your Circus and They Are Your Monkeys.”