Marion County Hospital District hopes to improve first responders’ mental health

File photo: Deputy Chief of Marion County Fire Rescue Robert Graff, left, and Chief James Banta, right, listen during the Marion County Commission meeting at the McPherson Governmental Complex in Ocala, Fla. on Tuesday, June 20 2023. The County Commission, with only three members present, unanimously approved the adoption of the Amended Collective Bargaining Agreement between the Professional Firefighters of Marion County, Local 3169, and the Board of County Commissioners during the meeting. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2023.

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Posted November 15, 2023 | By Jennifer Hunt Murty

A program designed to improve the mental health of Marion County first responders is slowly gaining traction among several area agencies more than a year after its inception.

The Marion County Hospital District (MCHD) rolled out the Marion County First Responder Program during the summer of 2022 with the goal of “elevating your mental well-being to the gold standard,’’ according to program materials provided to the “Gazette.”

“The First Responder Initiative is your go-to, data-driven mental wellness platform, offering specialized, comprehensive psychological support,’’ according to the materials. “Designed for those who protect us … and with 24/7 availability, our evidence-based approach ensures you and your family are not alone.”

The Ocala Police Department was the first agency to utilize the service, and Police Chief Michael Balken, thanked the MCHD trustees earlier this year for the resource, acknowledging it has been beneficial not only for staff but also for their spouses.

The trustees budgeted $200,000 for the initiative in the first year, but the last financial reports show only $78,122 was used during that period. According to MCHD, to date, 37 people with OPD and 10 from Marion County Fire Rescue have used the service.

“Please note how difficult it was initially to get individuals into therapy because of the stigma attached to it,” Joseph Hanratty, spokesperson for the MCHD, wrote in an email to the “Gazette.”

MCHD indicated it had recently surveyed Ocala Fire Rescue, Marion County Fire Rescue, and OPD staff to “measure resiliency, depression, and other factors related to first responders with input from fire chiefs and the chief of police.”

Ocala Fire Rescue and the Marion County Sheriff’s Office told the Gazette they had just learned of the initiative this past month and look forward to learning more about the resource as it comes online for their departments.

The MCHD trustees have increased the budget for this initiative for 2023-24 to $275,000 and brought on additional counselors from Ocala Consulting and Prevention to focus efforts primarily with local firefighters.

MCHD CEO Curt Bromund and trustee Rich Bianculli recently took County Administrator Mounir Bouyounes, MCFR Chief James Banta, Marion County Fire Union President Rolin Boyd, and Chaplain Steven Cantrell to Pensacola to participate in an Institute Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) program that brought professionals from different scientific disciplines to explore ways to increase physical, mental, and psychological resilience among firefighters.

Plans for this program were spurred early in the year after multiple suicides by MCFR firefighters. The IHMC session, budgeted at $75,000, was paid for by the MCHD.

During the Nov. 13 hospital district board meeting, Bianculli told trustees the 16 experts flew in for the program for “no charge” for the session. Through brainstorming, the attendees identified several areas that need further examination: nutrition, scheduling, hormonal imbalances and how the fire station is set up.

Bianculli said he learned through the process that the greatest strain was on EMS workers. A follow-up report is expected. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to implement what they say,” Bianculli told the trustees.

Which agencies will choose to implement the suggestions and how they will pay for them has yet to be determined.

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