By Dave McLennan, President/CEO, Boots on the Ground
The mental health and well-being of first responders and front-line workers is more important than ever as they face unprecedented stress and pressure while dealing with the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic.
This is in addition to the usual trauma first responders are exposed to every day on the job. The accumulation of trauma first responders witness during calls can take a heavy toll, especially if they don’t have an outlet to speak about it. This can eventually lead to issues such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or worse.
Stigma, confidentiality, and the fact that first responders are so reluctant to ask for assistance, prevents people from accessing the support they need. Because first responders are used to being the helpers, at times they are not comfortable asking for help themselves.
That is why we founded Boots on the Ground (BOTG). We saw that it was important to provide external resources where our first responders can make their own first call to reach out for assistance.
In 2016, as I was about to retire as a police officer, I was so fortunate to cross paths with the team at PSHSA. PSHSA helped us from the original BOTG steering committee and provided invaluable insight and guidance as we developed the program. PSHSA has been with us every step of the way and they continue to support us today, including a recent donation for our PTSD service dog program that will provide lifechanging opportunities for first responders with PTSD.
When we set up BOTG’s helpline - available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week - we did so to deliberately offer peer support by first responders, for first responders. We believe it is crucial for first responders that they have other first responders on the other end of the line who understand what they are going through. BOTG is staffed completely by 160 volunteer first responders, both serving and retired. We are available to both sworn and civilian members of all services, and we do not turn anyone away who calls.
BOTG offers support to police, firefighters, paramedics, corrections officers, and in the past month, we added support for nurses as well. This includes both frontline and civilian members of these services. Since our November 2018 launch, we have answered more than 870 calls.
Our helpline is completely anonymous, so callers do not have to disclose their name, where they work or where they live. The phone numbers are blocked when they call in. We also offer referrals to vetted clinicians and resources when we speak to callers. By offering this kind of anonymous assistance, the BOTG helpline assures callers they don’t have to worry about anyone knowing they have reached out for help.
If first responders receive the kind of assistance they need in a timely fashion, we have found it helps mitigate larger or long-lasting problems that can arise. On the other hand, if they don’t seek support and talk about what they are going through, it can lead to substance abuse, marital problems, sleep issues and, in the worst cases, suicide.
BOTG helpline volunteer Rob Leathen is a 28-year veteran firefighter with PTSD. Rob has said that stigma was the biggest factor that prevented him from reaching out for help sooner. He finds that by answering calls and helping others now, he is helping himself as well. We know there are thousands of people in Rob’s situation out there, who feel they have no place to call, and no one to talk to. We want them to know that Boots on the Ground is here for them 24/7.
It is so important for people to remember that there is hope, there are people that care and there are resources available to help get you through these difficult times.
Boots on the Ground
If you are in crisis, call 911, your local crisis line, or go to your nearest hospital.