‘The Weight of the Badge’ – Mental health conference planned for first responders, those who’ve experienced job-related trauma

Emergency responders are often called to scenes in which victims and witnesses are stressed, horror-stricken and traumatized. In the private sector, citizens who experience such emotional distress are commonly referred to mental health therapists, clinical psychologists and psychiatrists. But, for first responders who are often called back out to one scene after another and another, the option for help in dealing with all they experience isn’t always immediately available. 

And, worse yet, within the first responder community, getting help with one’s mental health is often seen as a sign of weakness. 

Winneshiek County Emergency Management Director Sean Snyder hopes to change that stigma and help northeast Iowa emergency responders get the help they need through the upcoming “The Weight of the Badge: Mental Health for Emergency Responders Conference”.

“Mental health well-being is something emergency responders regularly discuss with the people they have been called to help. However, the emergency responder’s own mental health well-being is oftentimes overlooked by the emergency responders themselves. We need to remove the stigma around mental health well-being and begin to accept ‘it’s okay to not be okay.’

“I’ve been an emergency responder since January 2002, and in that time, I’ve been a firefighter, paramedic, reserve deputy and emergency management,” said Snyder. “I’ve seen and done a lot of things in my career, and some things you can never forget.”

Snyder’s daughter is a United States Marine currently stationed in Okinawa, Japan, and the experiences she’s shared with him remind him of his own experiences. 

“I just want to get the message out there,” he said. “Emergency responders are fantastic at helping you – a total stranger – but the things we see, do, smell and hear on-scene … we’re just expected to forget all that and go back home to our families or go back to work. And, sometimes, it’s hard to get those things out of your head.”

The first of its kind

“This is the first mental health for emergency responder conference held in Winneshiek County,” according to the event website. 

The conference will be held from 6-10 p.m., Thursday, March 28, in Room 206 of Valders Hall of Science at Luther College in Decorah. Active/retired law enforcement, jailers, dispatchers, fire department, EMS, utility workers, Veterans and significant others/spouses are welcome to attend. The event is sponsored by multiple area private businesses so there is no cost to attend. Education credits for EMS and nursing are available for those who attend.

Keynote speakers

The conference will begin with a social hour from 5-5:55 p.m. with refreshments provided. 

At 6 p.m., Dave and Christi Dyke will present their program “Stronger than the Storm: A New Purpose.” Christi is an Emergency Room nurse at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and Dave recently retired after 24 years of service in law enforcement.

“Christi and Dave speak together – sharing how PTSD affects not only the individual but the devastating effect it can have on their loved ones,” says information found online. “They share how PTSD ultimately ended David’s career, led to suicidal thoughts and the planning of the same, the culture of mental health, the near demise of their marriage, and how they survived the storm.

“Their story is emotional, it is straight from the heart, and it is raw; one that is relatable to all those who have experienced trauma,” the online information continued about Christi and Dave. “It is a story of hope, and most importantly, their vulnerability in sharing their story, mixed with humor and at times a few tears, speaks directly to others letting them know they are not alone in their struggle, something that just might save the life of someone struggling from whatever trauma they may have experienced.”

Following Dave and Christi presentation, an intermission with refreshments will be held from 7:30-7:55 p.m. 

At 8 p.m., nationally-recognized speaker Joe Smarro will present “We Need to Talk.”

“A decorated combat Veteran and former police officer, Smarro shifted his focus in 2020 to making changes within law enforcement around the country with his company: SolutionPoint+,” reads information on the conference flier. “His goal is to eradicate suicide among all first responders — beginning with law enforcement.”

“From the fire and EMS side of things, we see a lot of suicides, car accidents and death scenes,” Snyder said. “As a brand new medic, you go through a lot of training — about a two-year program — but they can never train you for what you experience.”

A family affair

“The job is very stressful, as we see and do things that most people don’t experience in a lifetime,” said Winneshiek County Sheriff Dan Marx. “Over time, this job takes a toll on the professionals and their families. It’s essential that we deal with our stresses appropriately. We owe it to our families and the communities we serve.”

“What’s unique to this conference is that I’m pushing that significant others come with the emergency responder,” Snyder added. “My wife of 27 years has been my sounding board for a lot of it. She hasn’t had my experiences, but from the stories I’ve told her, she can probably close her eyes and feel like she was there. Those are the people I need to hear the message.”

Sheriff Marx agreed. “It’s a family affair. When someone is in this line of work, everyone in the home is affected by it. It is absolutely a team effort, and that family support makes a big difference.” 

Register now

Snyder said that, as of this article’s publishing date, 95 people have registered for the conference and he’s hoping to attract up to 200. 

To register for the conference, scan the QR code or visit form.jotform.com/233324371045044. 

For more information, find the Winneshiek County Emergency Management section under “Departments and Office” at winneshiekcounty.iowa.gov.  Or, call 563-387-4095 or follow Winneshiek County Emergency Management on Facebook.

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