Resiliency For First Responders

Tools for navigating occupational stress and trauma

Paul Stern and Trish Johnson, of Manitou Center, along with mental health counselor Erica Thibodeaux, and police investigator, Anne Scharmach were awarded a $10,000 grant from Winona Community Foundation to support a pilot program offering resilience and mindfulness training to first responders. Police, fire, dispatch, ambulance, and emergency room employees can be trained to develop skills to manage the daily occupational stress and trauma injuries that occur in these professions.

Scharmach, Johnson, and Thibodeaux began meeting in February 2019 to discuss the possibility of a pilot program and to learn about programs already being offered to first responders in other parts of the country. In a short time, Stern joined the group and they began building and growing relationships with department leaders at Winona Police and Fire Departments, Winona County Sheriff’s Department, Goodview Police Department, and Winona Health Emergency and Urgent Care. The grant was awarded soon after.

“First responders face some of the most challenging and unavoidable occupational stressors of our time. There are various programs happening all over the country. Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington, and even next door in Wisconsin, to address the occupational risks that first responders uniquely face,” explains Erica Thibodeaux, a mental health counselor who is trained to teach Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). She went on to explain, “We know that mindfulness reduces stress, and we know that first responders have occupational stress. It just makes sense.”

Cultural competency has been a priority throughout the planning of the program. While Johnson, Stern, and Thibodeaux have long histories teaching resilience and mindfulness to diverse groups, Scharmach is the one with 20 years experience as a first responder. With this in mind, the group formed an advisory committee comprised of individuals from the organizations they are hoping to serve. “The advisory council provides professional and culturally specific information and feedback” explains Scharmach, a police investigator who is also a certified yoga instructor.

Thad Pool, Winona Police Sergeant and advisory council member for the pilot program, explains “As law enforcement, we must implement measures and practices to equip ourselves, to protect our health, and overcome adversity we face in our personal and professional lives.” Thad goes on to explain, “a training such as this will expose attendees to tools and methods to address the negative impact of stress and improve our mental and physical health so that we can better serve our community.”

Additional advisory council members include: Joel Corcoran, Assistant Fire Chief, Beth Poulin, Director of Emergency and Urgent Care Services at Winona Health, and Andy Teska, Operations Director at Winona Area Ambulance Service.

Scharmach, Johnson, Thibodeaux, and Stern spent two days consulting with Richard Goerling, a retired police lieutenant and creator of Mindful Badge Initiative, an organization that teaches mindfulness-based resilience to police. “Richard helped us clarify how to use the knowledge and experience that we have in teaching mindfulness and resilience with other demographics, to develop a training specifically addressing the occupational stress injury and needs of first responders,” Johnson explains. “Growing these skills of awareness and resilience supports the overall health and wellbeing of first responders, their families and the community at large”.

Goerling emphasizes that training in mindfulness provides first responders with skillful actions that optimize their health, individual performance, organizational performance, and community engagement. Providing first responders with resiliency through mindfulness skills training positively impacts their awareness (being), decision-making (thinking), and response and sense-making (doing) on and off duty.

The Winona pilot program hopes to equip first responders with skillful action to optimize their human performance as they navigate occupational stress and trauma. The trainers intend that the participants will walk away with increased cognitive performance, more humanity and compassion, and a greater awareness of themselves and their impact on the community, their colleagues and their friends and family.

Scharmach, Thibodeaux, Stern and Johnson will serve as trainers for two different training cohorts beginning in January and February 2020.

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