KD Sunday Spotlight: Local women providing mental health services to first responders

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – First responders save people in traumatic and stressful situations every day, but many of them don’t take care of their own mental well-being.

Two local women have created Careful Connections for Public Safety in an effort to help support those on the front lines.

“I invite you to relax and get comfortable. Just take a moment to land here in this space,” said Christy Weidner as she led a meditation for first responders at the Rabkin Japanese Zen Garden in Tarentum.

She wanted them to just take a moment and clear their minds of the terrifying sights and sounds they encountered more than once a day.

“All the work we do, it’s hard not to take it home and process it every day,” Mandy Tinkey said. “We deal with incidents that help families on the worst day of their lives.”

Tinkey is the laboratory director for the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office. They investigate violent, sudden, accidental or unattended deaths in the county.

“I know you can’t drink from a fire hose, so I had to find ways for myself and the people that work with me to have techniques that would allow us to get through some of the incidents that we have to deal with.” we deal with every day and the decisions we have to make,” Tinkey said.

So Tinkey and her team participated in Mindful Connections for Public Safety.

It’s a nine-week course to learn skills that can reduce stress and trauma while improving health, resilience and focus.

“We hear a lot, ‘I’m just doing my job.’ It’s just my job.’ Even when you’re thanking somebody, ‘Oh, it’s not a big deal.’ It’s a big deal,” Weidner said. “We want to provide additional services to those who give selflessly every day to our communities.”

Weidner, the clinical director of the Village Center for Holistic Therapy, and Stephanie Romero, the founder of Awaken Pittsburgh, are working together to offer this service.

So far, they have led law enforcement, firefighters, emergency responders and others.

“They’re really concerned about their families,” Romero said. “If you come home and you’ve seen a bloody horror scene, you don’t often want to share that with your partner. So you withdraw or you can be on edge and react, and that creates a really difficult relationship with a spouse or children.”

In fact, Romero said there is a high divorce rate among firefighters because of the difficult career.

Before the 2018 pandemic, about 30 percent of first responders had behavioral health conditions, including post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) and depression, while rarely seeking support, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

“We also hear about a lot of alcohol abuse and other ways of numbing ourselves to try to cope without having that skill set,” Romero said. “What we really want to do is help people start noticing what’s going on in their minds and bodies.” Start to notice what the stress response is, start to notice that there’s actually a point where you’re starting to freak out or you’re starting to lose it, that you can actually step in and calm it down.”

Romero and Weidner incorporate therapy, meditation and walking meditation into their training. They said it was life changing.

“There’s a lot of research on this mind-body connection and how neuroplasticity in our brain can be rewired,” Weidner said. “So if you experience trauma or have anxiety, you can control your brain’s healing through meditation, and that’s really exciting.”

Tinkey said that thanks to this program, her staff practices these skills at least 15 minutes a week.

“Knowing that there are people who recognize that you have to help the helpers and without that, the passion fatigue, the secondary trauma will consume you,” Tinkey said. “Having people in our community wanting to help the aides and make the aides aware that I need support is huge for us.”

They prepare their minds and bodies so they can provide the best help when the time comes to answer the call.

“May you carry this feeling and this gratitude with you for the rest of the day and week,” Tinky said to end the meditation.

Weidner and Romero have a mental health and wellness training course for first responders, veterans and public safety professionals coming up on September 29 called The Post-Traumatic Purpose Project.

You can learn more about this course at this link.

Also, for more information on Mindful Connections for Public Safety, go to this link.

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