The City of Irving approved an official Public Safety Wellness Unit specifically designed for the Irving Fire and Police departments. The new unit will provide support for officers and first responders dealing with a variety of mental health issues. Organizers hope the unit will help remove the stigma associated with addressing and seeking mental health support.
When Dr. Mildred Betancourt approached the Irving City Council about establishing an official Public Safety Wellness Unit specifically designed for the Fire and Police departments, her mission was clear.
“[When] I call 911, I am expecting someone to get there right away because I’m in trouble, or I’m in danger or someone that I know of is in danger,” said Betancourt. “I don’t see why our first responders, when they call for help, they get the run around with ‘Well, we can see you in three weeks,’ or ‘Well, I’m not taking any new clients right now. Let me see if we can get someone to see you.’”
The City of Irving approved the new Wellness Unit program — a joint effort of the Fire and Police departments — in the Fiscal Year 2021-22 budget. Betancourt, who formerly served as the Clinical Director for the Family Advocacy Center, will oversee the program along with two other clinicians, and will serve as the Public Safety Wellness Unit’s Senior Manager. The additional team support will ensure that a clinician is always available for each department.
In 2016, the Irving Police Department launched the Peer Support Program. Betancourt, who was supervising fellow clinicians and interns at the time, had an open-door policy with her team. She extended that concept to first responders with the hope of serving as a resource for someone to talk to. It was then that an officer knocked on the door and asked if she had five minutes to talk. From there, demand for the program spread by word-of-mouth among officers.
The program gained momentum, as well as attention from fire personnel. In 2019, after years of offering mental health assistance to the department, Fire was officially incorporated into the program.
The Wellness Unit will visit all 12 Irving fire stations and attend every police briefing to provide first responders with the step-by-step information they need on how to access the program. This strategic move will expedite emergency personnel’s requests for mental health services, as well as provide direct access to clinicians.
The 24/7 program embeds clinicians into first responders’ culture — training them on police and fire’s professional work environment and job duties.
The unit currently provides eight-hour inoculation training for new recruits — educating officers and firefighters on issues from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to suicide prevention and self-care. Moving forward, the program will offer training in biofeedback to help first responders learn their biological responses to anxiety, depression, PTSD and sleep issues.
REMOVING THE STIGMA
Since the Peer Support Program began, it has helped save the lives of Irving officers and firefighters. Moving forward, Betancourt said she hopes to remove the stigma associated with addressing and seeking mental health support.
“We want to humanize our first responders — they bleed just like everyone else,” she said. “We want to be able to provide them with a safe space to feel and have permission to bleed without feeling guilty or ashamed because they’re human, and they carry the heaviest of burdens.”