By Indiana Nash
The Daily Gazette
ROTTERDAM, N.Y. — It recently became a bit easier for first responders in Schenectady County to access mental health services.
Operation At Ease, a Rotterdam-based nonprofit, this month started offering free telehealth therapy services for first responders and corrections officers in the county.
The program is led by Brooke Fox, a licensed mental health counselor out of Ballston Spa. First responders can apply through operationatease.org and they’ll be matched with a therapist who will provide free therapy for up to a year.
“We just hit the ground running with this telehealth initiative, trying to make mental health services more accessible for the first responders and corrections officers of the Capital Region,” Fox said.
“We’re starting with Schenectady County right now just so that we don’t go outside our means. We want to make sure we’re meeting the [needs] we can but we do hope to grow it to other counties as time goes on.”
No insurance is required and the therapists, who are donating their time, are all trauma-informed.
“We can fully anticipate any of the first responders or corrections officers that do reach out for services are probably coming with a trauma background given the nature of the work that they do. We just want our therapists to have that as a skill set, to know what trauma looks like, how trauma affects our bodies physically, mentally, emotionally, how it affects us at home, at our job, in our relationships. Just to provide that information to any clients who might come in so that they don’t look at any struggles as a personality defect,” Fox said.
The program is a new step for OAE, which typically works with veterans and fire responders, pairing them with rescue dogs and providing a free guided training program for post-traumatic stress and light mobility service dogs.
The impetus to add the program came last year when the non-profit was the recipient of funds raised through the Pig Bowl, an annual football game between the Schenectady Police Department and the Schenectady County Sheriff’s Department. They raised more than $16,000 for OAE, which the organization is mainly putting toward programs for first responders.
While the telehealth program is outside of the norm for OAE, founder Joni Bonilla noted that it’s needed.
“I think it’s very hard when you are the pillar of strength in rescue to [say] ‘I need help’ because you’re the person that helps everyone else,” Bonilla said.
Law enforcement officers and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. EMS providers are 1.39 times more likely to die by suicide than the public.
Stigma is one of the perennial barriers to mental health treatment and Fox stressed that the telehealth program is completely confidential. Even within OAE, Fox and a selected therapist will be the only people to see the applications.
“There’s not going to be any consequences at their job if they start opening up about their mental health challenges or struggles. That’s why we try to advertise as much as we can that this is 100% HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) compliant, it’s confidential. We are not reporting back to your chain of command, we won’t be speaking to anyone on the inside of your organization. This is all for you,” Fox said.
Bonilla also noted that first responders can use the telehealth program for any reason, even if it’s not connected to their job.
“You don’t need to use telehealth because you’ve had a hard time on the job. You can use that just because you give to the community and this is what we’re giving back to you. It’s just an exchange of services. You’ll be at the other end of 9/11 and we’ll give you a little therapy,” Bonilla said.
“We’re trying to get the word out and trying to let the first responders know and the corrections officers know. But also I’m trying to spread the word to make our therapists’ network larger. Any therapists who are interested in what we’re doing and might want to get involved or just find out more, any licensed therapist we just want them to know about us,” Fox said.
Beyond the telehealth program, OAE is also offering therapy dog visits to first responder units, military bases and veterans organizations in the Capital Region.
“If you have like a drill weekend coming up or a drill coming up and you are going to be talking about some hard things or you just had a bad call, you can just go to our website request a therapy dog visit and we’ll send therapy dogs,” Bonilla said.
They’re also offering free drop-in dog training classes at OAE for first responders.
“You can just sign up for one of them, bring your dog in, shut your brain off for an hour and build a relationship with your dog,” Bonilla said.
With all these programs, OAE aims to give back to the first responder community, which often struggles to seek and find health. Jonathan Govel, a Schenectady officer who helped organize the Pig Bowl, said he appreciated how Bonilla listened to the needs of the community and how quickly she got the telehealth program started.
“We greatly appreciate that. It was a surprise that she got it up and running so quickly,” Govel said. “Hopefully, we can form a working relationship and it’s going to be another resource that our peer support team can use.”
To sign up for the telehealth program and for more information on the other programs, visit operationatease.org.
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