On September 21st, I had the honor and privilege of attending day one of the 2nd Annual Rosecrance Florian Symposium along with 200 others from 20 States. It was awesome to catch up with fellow team members as well as make new contacts with others who have a personal stake in behavioral health issues concerning 1st responders. After listening to several speakers throughout the day, the common theme boiled down to just one word – vulnerability.
The day began with Florian Program Director Dan DeGryse recounting his years with the Chicago Fire Department as a rank and file blue shirt to battalion Chief (current rank) to the head of their EAP program for over 15 years. Dan related that there were many times after a shift he came home and just did not want to talk to anybody (due in part to his role as both a firefighter and EAP director), something he acknowledged had affected his family dynamic. He also expressed his frustration and anger over the increasing suicides within the department, something that eventually lead to his association with Rosecrance and the development of the Florian Program. Dan’s opening remarks were authentic and filled with emotion.
The first keynote speaker was Kent Williams, a retired Police Chief who spoke about the arena of crisis within which 1st responders operate, and how we can overcome the stressors (curse) that comes with the blessing of serving others in need. Kent spoke about his “wake up” when his wife had to tell him that his children were afraid of him. It was at that moment in the presentation that I sensed his regret over this issue in his life. However, this incident inspired him to create his business Breach Point Consulting. He defined the breach point as “A sudden change in personal/professional perspective, allowing for tremendous personal growth”. He shares lessons learned (that spanned a 32-year career) with others so they will not have to face the same trials and tribulations. An honest, open, and dynamic conversation to say the least.
The next session I attended was presented by (a friend of mine from Canada) Dan Bowers who is a retired Ontario Provincial Police Officer. Dan recounted his struggles with PTSD, depression, and drinking that led to two failed marriages and estrangement from his children. After much reflection, Dan realized that the most important circle around us (family, friends, or significant others) are all too often left behind with no idea about how to help the first responder should they experience a crisis. This led Dan to complete ardent research concerning this issue which inspired him to create the First Eyes Mental Health Program. Currently this program is only available in Canada, and consists of a 6-hour workshop that includes all stakeholders in the 1st responder’s circle. By the end of the day, this circle will complete 8 modules of instruction and leave with a solid game plan and resources to use in the event of a mental/emotional crisis. Two memorable take-away quotes from this presentation: “Mental health recovery is not linear, it bounces back and forth but you can get through it, and have a rebirth”. “We can’t rely on others to do our homework”. Another real, raw, and honest conversation about lessons learned.
The next session I attended was led by our own Colleen Murphy who is the Spouse Coordinator for Illinois Firefighter Peer Support. Colleen shared her personal story as the wife of a firefighter and the nuggets of wisdom garnered from this life experience. The greatest take away for any first responder is that it is very hard to separate the effects of the job from home life. A way to ease this burden is to have an open line of communication between partners and their children. Colleen said it is paramount to bring kids to the workplace to relieve any separation anxiety and/or fears they may experience. Colleen is a great asset to spouses and significant others and connects easily with those she helps just by being honest and open.
The final speakers of the day were Mike Dugan and John Walters of the FDNY who shared each of their own personal stories about years on the job and the toll it took on their psyche. These speakers did not define the effects of mental health injuries (like PTSD) as would a textbook- they did not have to. They spoke of self-medicating through alcohol, having a spouse significant other give them an “eye-opener” through honest conversation, and losing friends through suicide. Each man took the courageous step and had the emotional intelligence to realize that they would not get any better without seeking the services of a professional counselor and peer support personnel. Mike did state it is most beneficial to seek out a counselor who has a strong baseline knowledge of our profession for the most meaningful recovery. An hour and 15 minutes of two men telling very poignant stories. Nothing more and nothing less.
The theme for this year’s Symposium was “We all Need Help Sometimes”. To me, the theme for the day was vulnerability. Each speaker connected with his/her audience simply by providing an open, honest, and meaningful conversation. As peer support team members, we are engaged in public speaking (educational) events to spread the good word, as well as provide one-on-one services to a brother or sister in need. In the long run- to resonate, be vulnerable.
In health and wellness,