Women Provide Mental Health Services to First Responders
By Briana Smith
First responders rescue people in traumatic and stressful situations every day but many don’t take care of their own mental well-being.
Two local women created “Mindful Connections for Public Safety” in an effort to help support those on the front lines.
“I invite you to relax and take a comfortable seat. Just take a moment to land here in this space,” Kristy Weidner said as she led a meditation for first responders in the Rabkin Japanese Zen Garden in Tarentum.
She wanted them to just take a moment and clear their mind of the horrendous sights and sounds they face more than once a day.
“All of the work that we do is difficult to not take home with you and not to process every day,” said Mandy Tinkey. “We are dealing with incidents that are helping families on the worst day of their lives.”
Tinkey is the laboratory director in the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s office. They investigate the violent, sudden, accidental, or medically-unattended deaths in the county.
“I know that you can’t drink out of a fire hose, so I needed to find ways for myself and those individuals who work with me to have techniques to allow us to get through some of the incidents we have to deal with every day and decisions we have to make,” said Tinkey.
So, Tinkey and her team participated in Mindful Connections for Public Safety.
It’s a nine-week course to learn skills that can reduce stress and trauma while improving health, resilience, and focus.
“We hear a lot, ‘I’m just doing my job. This is just my job.’ Even when you’re thanking somebody, ‘Oh it’s not a big deal.’ It is a big deal,” said Weidner. “We want to provide additional services to those who give selflessly every day to our communities.”
Weidner, the clinical director of Village Center for Holistic Therapy, and Stephanie Romero, the founder of Awaken Pittsburgh are working together to offer this service.
So far, they’ve guided law enforcement, firefighters, EMS workers, and others.
“They’re really concerned about their families,” said Romero. “If you come home and you’ve seen a gory horrific scene, you don’t often want to share that with your partner. So, you withdraw or you might be on edge and reactive, and so that creates a really difficult relationship with a spouse or kids.”
In fact, Romero said there is a high divorce rate among firefighters due to the challenging career.
Before the pandemic in 2018, about 30-percent of first responders experienced behavioral health conditions, including post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) and depression while rarely seeking support, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
“We also hear about a lot of alcohol abuse and other ways of numbing to try to deal without having that skill set,” said Romero. “What we actually want to do is help people begin to notice what’s happening in their minds and bodies. Begin to notice what the stress response is, begin to notice that there’s actually a moment when you start to freak out or start to lose it, that you can actually intervene and calm it down.”
Romero and Weidner include therapy, meditation, and walking meditation in their training. They said it’s life-changing.
“There is a lot of research on that mind and body connection and how the neuroplasticity in our brain can be rewired,” said Weidner. “So, if you experience trauma or have anxiety, you can control the treatment of your brain through meditation, and it’s really exciting.”
Tinkey said thanks to this program, her staff practices these skills at least 15 minutes per week.
“To know that there are people out there that recognize that you have to help the helpers and without having that, the passion fatigue, vicarious trauma will engulf you,” said Tinkey. “Having people in our community that want to help the helpers and make the helpers realize I need the support, is huge for us.”
They prepare their minds and bodies so they can provide the best assistance once it’s time to answer the call.
“May you carry this feeling and this gratitude with you for the rest of the day and the week,” Tinkey said to end the meditation.
Weidner and Romero have a mental health and wellness training course for first responders, veterans, and public safety professionals coming up on September 29 called “The Post-Traumatic Purpose Project.”