Agencies boost mental health efforts after battalion chief's suicide

First responder agencies are working to improve mental health resources and training after the death of Cowlitz 2 Fire & Rescue Battalion Chief Mickel Zainfeld


Alex Bruell
The Daily News, Longview, Wash.

COWLITZ COUNTY, Wash. — The death of Cowlitz 2 battalion chief Mickel Zainfeld has prompted local agencies and grassroots groups to boost efforts to help firefighters, police, EMS providers and other first responders cope with the emotional trauma of their jobs.

And one way may be for both them and the public to tone down the superhero image they bear.

First responder agencies in Cowlitz County have taken steps to improve mental health resources and training following the death of Cowlitz 2 Fire & Rescue Battalion Chief Mickel Zainfeld. Zainfeld died from suicide in September after being diagnosed with work-related PTSD. (Photo/Cowlitz 2 Fire & Rescue Facebook)
First responder agencies in Cowlitz County have taken steps to improve mental health resources and training following the death of Cowlitz 2 Fire & Rescue Battalion Chief Mickel Zainfeld. Zainfeld died from suicide in September after being diagnosed with work-related PTSD. (Photo/Cowlitz 2 Fire & Rescue Facebook)

“I think one of the big challenges is just the need for culture change,” Cowlitz County chaplain Doug Fields said. “I think first responders are no different than the rest of the community. … There is still a stigma that if you ask for mental health (help), reach out to a counselor, therapist or pastor … somebody’s going to think less of you.”

There are “years and years of history” of a culture around being tough and “getting over it and moving on” after hard calls, Fields said.

Zainfeld, 41, died by suicide in September, and his death was officially declared work-related due to his diagnosis of work-related PTSD. His death, said Cowlitz 2 Chief Dave LaFave, means “getting over it and moving on” is no longer an option for emergency personnel dealing with mental and emotional trauma.

The agency recently started contracting with Responder Life, an Oregon firm that helps public safety agencies train individual employees to help other employees find support.

Employees may feel uncomfortable revealing their troubles to a boss, but they may talk to a peer, LaFave said.

“They emphasize that they’re not counselors or mental health professionals,” LaFave said. “They’re somebody who works in the environment. … If a person feels like they’re struggling, they can reach out to a peer support person. … That person can help them work toward the services.”

The novel coronavirus breakout has paused the agency’s plans to hold relationship classes for first responders and their significant others, LaFave said, but those classes, a joint effort between the department and the union, will return.

Healthcare providers and other resources that Cowlitz 2 gets in touch with can be shared with other agencies to build a support network.

“We should be putting as much effort into being proactive on the mental health aspect of this as we put into retirement planning,” LaFave said.

Chaplain Fields is part of a grassroots committee made primarily of first responder spouses that formed several months ago to share tools, coaching and resources for first responder families in Cowlitz County. The group is considering holding seminars on issues like navigating insurance, making tool kits and handouts on the stress factors that families often deal with, and building lists of counselors and therapists who are experts at helping first responders.

Anisa Kisamore, a member of the committee and the spouse of a Kalama firefighter, said that while every family is different, they can share lessons they’ve learned. After Zainfeld’s death, “I got phone calls from wives saying, ‘My husband is locked down, or some of those same things mentioned in the news article … (are) what I saw in my spouse,” Kisamore said. Among the experts LaFave is consulting is Jeffrey Holguin, a postdoctoral psychology director at Lacey Fire District 3 in Thurston County.Holguin served in the Coast Guard for eight years working in bomb disposal, EMT and law enforcement, among other roles. He’s had his own exposure to trauma and researches why some people cope with it better than others. The best way to help, he said, may not be holding hands and hugging each other.

“For me to go up to firefighters and tell everybody to be super emotional and always talk about their feelings, and hold hands, that would not make sense, and that would not be effective,” Holguin said in a phone interview.

But he does talk about depression and substance abuse and how traumatized or struggling responders can find healthier ways to cope and bounce back.

Responders can be proactive by being vulnerable and honest with their crews and their families about rough shifts, he said. And Holguin says the public’s “hero narrative” about jobs from firefighting to police to the military needs to evolve.

“ ‘A hero doesn’t get sick, doesn’t get hurt, always shows up.’ … That’s not possible to live up to, that idealistic image doesn’t exist, it’s an almost mythological figure,” he said. “Trying to live up to that might be a … driver of depression and substance abuse.”

Both Holguin and LaFave agreed that responders bear some responsibility to make good life choices, choosing for example to exercise, cultivate relationships and avoid alcohol abuse. Doing so can contribute to psychological resilience, Holguin said.

“There’s only so much we can do for identifying resources,” LaFave said. “None of us can delve into another person’s mind and know exactly what’s going on.”

Simply being a presence for his department and nearby agencies has sparked change, Holguin said. People weren’t sure about trusting him at first, which was “understandable.”

“‘Is he going to talk to the administration about what we talked about?’ Over time they found out that’s not going to happen,” Holguin said. “You’re safe if you come to talk to me or another therapist. ... They start to realize that there are therapists and psychologists that are really not that different than they are. I look like, talk like, act like them in many ways … All of the sudden, in the departments I work with, it’s not weird for them to talk about coming to talk to me.”

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©2020 The Daily News, Longview, Wash.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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