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Help offered for C.O. first responders who struggle with stress

'When things started going south for me, I thought there was just something was wrong with me.'

BEND, Ore. ( KTVZ ) -- Law enforcement and other first responders are quite often the first people on the scene of a variety of variety traumatic and stressful incidents, and they're often the victims of mental fatigue and trauma as a result.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is now being considered post-traumatic stress injuries (PTSI), and it affects many officers.

A Central Oregon chaplain told NewsChannel 21 on Wednesday while law enforcement suicides are increasing, so are the resources to prevent them.

Joel Stutzman says first responders' mental health has to be monitored regularly, because while the stress of one incident may not visibly affect them, numerous incidents over time surely can.

"We do things such as ride-alongs, we do walk-throughs on the agency," Stutzman said. "We also do one-on-ones with different first responders. It gives us an opportunity to have those conversations and help people talk about them, so that they aren't building up.

"What happens is one incident is okay, but when it's five or 10 over the course of a career, that's when it becomes almost more than they can handle," he said.

According to studies cited by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 7-19% of police officers experience symptoms of PTSD, compared to 3.5% of the general population.

Some officers have found support and understanding from their families.

NAMI also reports that more police officers die by suicide than in the line of duty. In 2017, there were an estimated 140 law enforcement suicides.

The Deschutes County Sheriff's Office and the Bend police and fire departments partner with the Central Oregon Chaplaincy and psychologists to help officers work through various circumstances on the job.

Justin Waalkes is a newly retired paramedic who worked for more than 30 years for the Black Butte Ranch Fire Department. He joined the agency in 1989, and retired Jan. 15.

Wallkes told NewsChannel 21 the day-to-day destruction of property, people losing homes and responding to emotional incidents took a toll on his health.

He said he believes there is a stigma surrounding first responders getting help for PTSD, and the topic of mental health is not discussed enough.

"In all honesty, when I first started it was, 'Firefighters don't cry'," Waalkes said. "'Just buck up, get back on the truck and get out there and do it again.' It was very much a military-like organization, where you just sucked it up and dealt with it.

"So starting with that sort of mindset, I really didn't (utilize the psychological resources that were available.) So when things started going south for me, I thought there was just something that was wrong with me."

Waalkes said he still had a year left before becoming eligible for full PERS and retirement benefits, but he decided against playing Russian roulette with his health.

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Arielle Brumfield

Arielle Brumfield is a multimedia journalist for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Arielle here.


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