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Ky. nonprofit works to end mental health stigmas among first responders

Mend the Line counselors held an awareness program for first responders in London

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Mend the Line President Sonya Kirkpatrick, LCSW, (left) and CEO Jessica Wigginton, LCSW, (right) with Boyle County EMS Director Mike Rogers (center).

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By Madison Nantz
The Sentinel Echo

LONDON, Ky. — Mend the Line, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending mental health stigma in the first responder community, hosted a program at the London Fire Department to raise awareness on Tuesday, June 25.

The program, “First Responders: Ending Mental Health Stigma,” had speakers President Sonya Kirkpatrick, a licensed clinical social worker; and Mike McCurdy, who is a firefighter, EMT, and veteran, who presented a slideshow.

Kirkpatrick entered the field in 2000 with eight years of education under her belt. She worked at Ambulance Inc. of Laurel County in London for several years before moving to Florida and working as a paramedic there. She later returned to Laurel County, where she tragically had a career-ending knee injury.

Kirkpatrick was a 21-year-old when she initially started her career. She addressed the tolls the job took on her at such a young age, sharing personal stories about the traumas she experienced.

“Nobody had told me that I’m going to be looking for appendages on the side of the road after an accident, but there I was,” Kirkpatrick stated.

Kirkpatrick explained that traumatic events experienced by first responders at age 25 and below still qualify as childhood trauma, due to the brain not being fully developed yet.

First responders’ scores on the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) test, a short exam given to determine an individual’s level of trauma on a scale of 1 to 10, are similar to those of inmates. Kirkpatrick’s own score was a 9 out of 10.

McCurdy shared that he has suffered from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) due to his career as well.

“We don’t have time to recover from it because we have another job to get to,” he stated.


“Most likely, you know at least one caregiver who is struggling, but you’re reluctant to act”

PTSD and contemplation of suicide are major possibilities and points of concern for those who serve as first responders, as they experience more trauma on a daily basis than many individuals do within a lifetime.

For example, the general public experiences one to three traumatic events within their lives, while police officers average three traumatic events per six months of service, which would amount to 120 over a 20-year span.

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Furthermore, there are several contributing factors that prevent first responders from seeking out assistance when suffering as a result of their traumatic experiences. A few examples include the unpredictable work schedule, fear of loss of status or firearms, being perceived as weak by coworkers, feeling as though their masculinity or ability to perform is threatened, and the cost of services such as therapy.

Luckily for first responders, if they have any general copays, out-of-pocket inpatient or outpatient treatments, or medication copays associated with a work-related stress injury, they can be 100% reimbursed through the Kentucky Fire Commission.

The process of being reimbursed is as simple as having the doctor or therapist involved help the first responder to fill out paperwork verifying that the individual has received a diagnosis. Notably, the act of reaching out is kept private.

The pair shared that concerns for first responders include long work hours, missing family events, unpredictable sleep patterns, difficulty managing minor stressors, repeated exposure to trauma, burnout, and drinking to cope with the challenges of the job.

Kirkpatrick shared that first responders who are concerned about their coworkers should familiarize themselves with the previously listed warning signs, know local resources, regularly have “buddy checks,” and conduct debriefs following critical incidents.

McCurdy discussed his own development of self-destructive tendencies, the primary one being a dependency on alcohol to numb the pain.

In police officer suicides, alcohol is present in 85% of them.

Career firefighters have reported drinking on about half of their off-duty days. Furthermore, approximately 50% of male firefighters reported either heavy or binge drinking alcohol within the past month and 9% reported driving while intoxicated.

Additionally, Kirkpatrick and McCurdy disclosed that the statistics for first responders are often lower than the true percentages, as first responders are often untruthful about their struggles due to fear.

A living testimony to the possibility of mental health improvement, McCurdy has now been sober for over five years. McCurdy encourages journaling and debriefing with coworkers after emergency runs.


Identify and aid team members facing depression, burnout or compassion fatigue to foster an emotionally safe organizational environment

Both Kirkpatrick and McCurdy have additionally received stellate ganglion block (SGB) shots, which immediately and massively improved their mental state. The shot was initially meant to aid with chronic physical pain, but once injured veterans began reporting mental improvements as well, it was discovered that the SGB shot can provide more than just a physical treatment.

Firefighters may receive full coverage for the shot if they have a PTSD diagnosis and are actively seeing a therapist. Insurance does not cover the cost, which is $600.

Further treatment modalities that are proven to be effective include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), cognitive processing therapy (CPT), exposure therapy, accelerated resolution therapy (ART), narrative exposure therapy (NET), and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy — which Kirkpatrick said has been the most effective for first responders.

Available resources include the PTSD Foundation of America, which can be reached by phone at 877-717-PTSD and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), whose phone number is 800-662-HELP.

Also, All Clear Foundation partners with Crisis Text Line to provide confidential support with access specifically for emergency responders. Text “BADGE” to 741741 to access the line.

For further inquiries concerning the work of Mend the Line, visit mendthelineky.org.

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