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WEIGHING ON THE SYSTEM THEY ARE US: PART THREE

This is the third installment in a four-part, in-depth series by Sky-Hi News about mental health in Grand County. Throughout this series, which will be in print and on our website every Friday throughout April, you will meet several local people who struggle with mental health issues, both personally and professionally. We share their stories and how they connect to the systemic issues facing local mental health. Their stories are woven together through all four parts, giving mental health in Grand County a visible face while examining the issues and what’s being done to address them.

PART THREE

STORY BY McKenna Harford, Lance Maggart and Bryce Martin

On the chilly, relatively uneventful night of Oct. 7, 2018, local law enforcement was called to County Road 8 in Fraser.

A 27-year-old man was brandishing a gun while driving erratically and threatening to kill himself. Before police arrived, the man had crashed his vehicle and fled the scene with his handgun.

“He felt like we were going to be coming after him,” recalled Grand County Sheriff’s Lt. Dan Mayer. “He left the car crash and he came walking back after we got there. He had a gun in his hand.”

The man began approaching two officers with the gun, which they repeatedly told him to drop, but the man acted differently.

“He did something I’ve never seen before, he put the gun on his head,” Mayer said.

An officer then deployed a less-lethal weapon system on the man, hitting him in the gut with a sponge round, causing the gun to fall from his head and onto the ground. In just seconds, the man reached for the gun, but changed his mind and started towards an officer shouting, “Go ahead, kill me!”

A second officer was able to subdue the man using a Taser and arrested him.

Mayer said the man’s actions were an attempt to engage in suicide by cop.

Ultimately, police discovered that the gun the man had was fake. He was charged, however, with felony menacing, reckless driving and driving under the influence.

Incidents like these are becoming more common. The sheriff’s office estimated that an attempted suicide by cop is experienced on a monthly basis in Grand County.

“Every call you go on, you’re worried that it’s going to be, for every suicidal person, me showing up is going to push them over the edge,” said Mayer, spokesperson for the sheriff’s office. “They’re going to try to get me to kill them so they don’t have to kill themselves.”

Mayer, who has served in Colorado law enforcement since the late 1980s, said he believes the rate of attempts at suicide by cop have increased over the years.

“I think it has come to an all-time high,” he said, in fact.

The incidents have touched the highest echelons of local law enforcement.

In 2015, Grand County Sheriff Brett Schroetlin shot local resident Connor MacLaird in an incident of attempted suicide by cop.

MacLaird was advancing on Schroetlin and other deputies with a knife after hours earlier breaking into the Snooty Coyote Liquor Store in Tabernash.

The man survived the incident and was later sentenced to 10 years in prison for attempted assault on Schroetlin.

At his sentencing, the judge admonished MacLaird for his attempt to force officers to kill him.

The central booking area of the Grand County jail is typically one of the first stops for an inmate. Patients previously could be held in jails on mental health lockups, even if they had not committed a crime. That changed last year, when the state legislature passed a law banning mental health lock-ups in jails for non-criminal patients. | Photo by Bryce Martin

Mental health continues to become more visible in the community even as resources are shrinking, which is leading to an increased strain on law enforcement, first responders and the hospital emergency departments.

According to Mayer, sheriff’s deputies are responding to calls involving mental health on a daily basis, whether or not a crime is involved.

Law enforcement in Grand County typically serves as the front-line responders when citizens are experiencing a mental health crisis. This dynamic has developed over the years out of necessity, though few, if any, policy makers, law enforcement leaders or mental health professionals ever intended for it.

The paradigm is a result of many things, from a lack of front-end resources that could theoretically address mental health issues before they become crises, to a nationwide lack of mental health professionals who could be called upon in times of need.

In a broad sense, the cost of mental health care from front-end preventative care is unintentionally transferred to back-end crisis management. This puts officers, whose primary role is not the management of mental health crises, in difficult situations with attempts at suicide by cop being a notable example.

Under the current system, law enforcement field calls for individuals experiencing mental health issues when they have committed crimes, such as assaults or damaging property. Because there is no true mental health first responder, police are also called upon when citizens are experiencing mental health problems in public, even when a crime has not been committed. Let ocal law enforcement also field calls for individuals who are reported to be acting erratically.

“They have crisis lines with mental health, but they don’t have a response line,” Mayer acknowledged. “We are the response to go and deal with it and then bring in mental health (professionals).”

Since law enforcement officers are increasingly dealing with calls that involve a mental health concern, mental health crisis training is becoming a particularly vital part of the job.

Dealing with mental health subjects has been a point of contention for local law enforcement for years. The typically straightforward, tough demeanor of police can be a detriment to those in a crisis. Sometimes that causes even more problems.

To better train law enforcement on how to specifically handle such situations, the Grand County Sheriff’s Office has engaged in specialized training.

The sheriff’s office first began to participate in the Crisis Intervention Team program, or CIT, in 2014. It is a training program that teaches law enforcement how to help people with mental illness access medical treatment, avoid criminalization and promote safety for everyone involved.

“It really kind of bridged that gap in there to where officers learned how to recognize mental illness and learn how to deal with it,” Mayer said. “You’re not trying to cure, you’re recognizing and trying to figure out what to do next.”

Mayer was instrumental in bringing the training to Grand County.

When the county first hosted the CIT program, the sheriff’s office received a $16,000 grant for being the first to bring the training to the northwest region of the state.

Around half of the current officers have received CIT training, Grand County Sheriff Brett Schroetlin estimated. The office continues to send officers through the program when they have the funding to do so.

“We recognize that mental health is important, so by having that stuff in our toolbox, it helps our people deal with these situations better,” Schroetlin said.

Some officers have also gone through the Youth in Crisis training, which is similar to the CIT program but targeted at teenagers and children, as well as the Mental Health First Aid program offered through the Grand County Rural Health Network.

Since the inaugural CIT training, Mayer said the sheriff’s office has continued using the program because it has proven effective, particularly at decreasing the instances of use of force against a person with mental illness.

“With more and more educated officers, what’s gone up is your instances of dealing with people with mental health issues,” Mayer said. “The uses of force against them have gone way down.”

Evidence shows the training improves the officers’ knowledge, attitudes and behavior, as well as organizational, community and call subject outcomes, according to the CIT program’s website.

One of the reasons Mayer believes the program is so effective is because it involves a lot of realistic role-playing, with actors and actresses specifically trained to portray mental illness.

“You have a whole new appreciation for mental health once you’ve gone through (the training),” he explained.

When Vanessa Benjamin-Rus was having a serious crisis two years ago related to her dissociative identity disorder diagnosis, her 12-year-old girl alternate personality took over for her. Seeing she was in crisis and scared, a Granby police officer gave her a stuffed giraffe. Benjamin-Rus still has the giraffe. | Photo by Bryce Martin

Vanessa Benjamin-Rus, a Granby resident who suffers from dissociative identity disorder, or DID, said she doesn’t recall the name of the Granby police officer that came to her aid one evening in 2017.

One of the 44-year-old’s alternate personalities had self-harmed and another alter, a 12-year-old girl named Pikachu, had taken over as Benjamin-Rus was experiencing a crisis.

Her husband, Carl Rus, explained to the officer that his wife was having an episode related to her DID. He told the officer that Pikachu was a young girl.

The officer went to his car, pulled something out and walked back over to Benjamin-Rus. He stretched out his hand, which contained a stuffed giraffe. He handed it to Pikachu.

“We still have that giraffe in our family,” Benjamin-Rus said warmly.

Benjamin-Rus said most of the local law enforcement is familiar with herself and her husband. They understand she has DID and often respond to her home when crises arise.

For the most part, according to Benjamin-Rus, law enforcement has been excellent in helping with her mental illness. The sheriff’s office, especially, she said, has come such a long way in becoming educated and supportive to mental health.

These efforts also help to decriminalize mental illness, which is important to Benjamin-Rus since she and her husband face stigmatization for their mental illnesses, despite the fact that people with mental health problems are no more likely to commit a crime than anyone else, according to MentalHealth.gov, a government mental health informational resource.

Most people with mental illness are not considered violent and only 3 to 5 percent of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness. People with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population, according to the website.

On one night in February 2012, however, Benjamin-Rus became a statistic.

“I lived in fear and terror.”

She was in bed with her husband as he fell asleep and she began to watch a movie on her laptop. She got up to use the bathroom and the next thing she could remember was being in the dining room.

“The house was in disarray; the animals were hiding,” she said she had observed.

Then she saw Rus had a cut on his lips.

“I had a panic attack,” she recalled. “I was freaking out.”

She didn’t want to call the police because she didn’t quite know what had happened. “But we needed help,” she admitted. She dialed 911 and, shortly after, two officers arrived at their home.

Grand County Sheriff’s Deputy Sprague was one of the officers that responded to the call. The call was for a domestic disturbance at the couple’s home on Columbine Drive in Grand Lake — they currently reside in Granby.

Granby Police Officer Schafer joined Sprague at the scene.

Sprague recognized the address, having previously responded to calls at the home.

While Schafer spoke with Rus in the dining room, Sprague went upstairs and into the bathroom to interview Benjamin-Rus.

“Benjamin-Rus stated she was unaware of what had happened, but she believed her personality, Shawn, had made an appearance and that he is aggressive and sometimes dangerous,” Sprague explained in an affidavit in support of warrantless arrest dated Feb. 27, 2012.

Shawn, one of Benjamin-Rus’s alternate personalities, had never before attacked someone. Benjamin-Rus said in a recent interview, however, the personality wasn’t Shawn and was more likely to be a malevolent alter simply referred to as “Demon.”

Sprague left the bathroom and headed downstairs to speak with Rus, who indicated he was having difficulty remembering the events because he was “in shock,” according to the affidavit.

What he did remember, however, was an attack.

He recalled he had woken up to Benjamin-Rus’s screams for help, and found her crying in the bathroom.

“Look what you have made me do,” he recalled Benjamin-Rus saying. She had pointed to the cuts on her arms and thighs.

She became angry, he remembered, and started yelling.

It was one of her alters, he told the officers.

He went on to explain that Benjamin-Rus had followed him downstairs and pushed him into the kitchen, backing him up against a counter. She was holding a pocketknife, which she had earlier used to cut herself, and was waving it in an attempt to cut him.

“It was a knife,” Rus told the officers, “I was afraid she was going to cut or stab me.”

He pushed through Benjamin-Rus and moved towards the front door. She then picked up a metal handle to a broom and began hitting Rus, striking him five times in the legs, upper body and face. That had broken open his lip.

“She has a mental disability; I am not pressing charges on her,” Rus defiantly told police.

“The next thing I know, they took me in a cop car to the emergency room,” Benjamin-Rus recalled. “No one would tell me anything.”

She still wasn’t aware of what had happened.

Medical staff evaluated her when she arrived at Middle Park Health-Granby. She was treated for her injuries, cleared by Mind Springs Health personnel then released back into Sprague’s custody.

Sprague was told by an official with Mind Springs, which was at that time known as Colorado West, that Benjamin-Rus was neither suicidal nor a danger to others. Sprague was told Benjamin-Rus had experienced a dissociative episode.

“Nobody in the emergency room even asked if I needed to go to the hospital,” said Benjamin-Rus, referring to Mind Springs’s psychiatric hospital West Springs in Grand Junction.

Instead, she was taken to the county jail and booked on domestic violence charges.

Vanessa Benjamin-Rus was charged in February 2012 with felony second-degree assault and felony menacing after a domestic violence incident with her husband. She reached a plea deal with the district attorney for a deferred sentence. But the trauma of the incident still lingers. | Grand County Court

All she did was cry the following day while in custody.

According to Benjamin-Rus, she had no criminal history.

She appeared before a Grand County judge, who Rus begged not to issue charges.

Despite Rus’s efforts, the deputy district attorney at the time pursued charges on behalf of the state. Benjamin-Rus was charged with second-degree assault and menacing, each a felony.

Her attorney, a public defender assigned to the case, had informed Benjamin-Rus that she had the option to take the matter to trial.

“Are you kidding me?” she recalled telling him. “You think I’m going to put myself on the stand in a very ignorant county that knew really nothing about mental illness at the time?”

In the end, she received a deferred sentence as part of a plea bargin. She had to report to a probation officer regularly for two years and attend domestic violence classes, for which she had to pay about $50 per class. After that, the charges were expunged from her record.

But for the ensuing two years, Benjamin-Rus was a robot. She didn’t cry; she faked a smile when in public, which was seldom. She said she was terrified to feel any emotion. The trauma of being arrested and incarcerated still lingered.

“I lived in fear and terror,” she recalled.

If she saw a police car or saw flashing lights, she would have a panic attack.

But since that night over seven years ago, the sheriff’s office, especially, has come such a long way in assisting with mental health calls, according to Benjamin-Rus. She highlighted that as singularly the biggest positive change to local mental health in the last few years. The whole sheriff’s office has become more empathetic, understanding and helpful when dealing with mental health crises, in her opinion.

“What can happen is the mental health problem plays out in the criminal justice system, which is not designed specifically for that. So, it’s inefficient at best.”

Just like law enforcement, the 14th Judicial District Attorney’s Office has also noticed a rise in the number of cases involving mental health. The office’s response to the trend, also like that of law enforcement, is restricted by protocol and a lack of resources.

“The mental health support system in our society is not adequate, particularly for people who don’t have means,” said Matt Karzen, assistant district attorney for the 14th Judicial District, which includes Grand County. “What can happen is the mental health problem plays out in the criminal justice system, which is not designed specifically for that. So, it’s inefficient at best.”

Karzen explained that the office’s mission is to seek justice, not convictions. When they are considering whether or how to charge someone and what the consequences should be, they are trying to prevent the person from committing another crime.

When someone is experiencing mental health issues, it complicates this process.

DEFINING OUR TERMS

Not guilty by reason of insanity: Colorado Revised Statute 16-8-101.5: The applicable test of insanity shall be (a) a person who is so diseased or defective in mind at the time of the commission of the act as to being capable of distinguishing right from wrong, the respect to that act is not accountable. Except that care should be taken not to confuse such mental disease or deficit with moral obliquity, mental depravity or passion growing out of anger, revenge, hatred or other motives and kindred evil conditions for when the act is induced by any of these causes, the person is accountable to the law.

Incompetency to proceed: As a result of a mental disability or developmental disability, the defendant does not have sufficient present ability to consult with the defendant’s lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding in order to assist in the defense, or that, as a result of a mental disability or developmental disability the defendant does not have a rational and factual understanding of the criminal proceedings.

“What we are ultimately trying to do with many, if not most of our prosecutions, (…) is just to change people’s behavior, to set them up so that they don’t do that anymore,” he said. “That’s a real challenge when one of the primary contributors to the behavior is mental illness.”

There are only two legal tools available for people with mental illness: to be declared incompetent or to plead not guilty by reason of insanity. Both are very high standards to meet and typically result in the person being remanded to a state psychiatric hospital.

However, if someone is not responsible for their actions for a reason beyond their control, or “effectively sleepwalking,” as Karzen put it, then their actions don’t usually qualify as a crime because they are lacking an intention of wrongdoing.

An example of this is if someone with a mental illness was prescribed new medication and taking it as prescribed but had an adverse reaction that caused them to break the law, then it is unlikely that person would be charged.

In a legal system so “adversarial” to mental health, as Karzen explained, local prosecutors try to acknowledge on the front end when a mental health issue is involved and take that into consideration when deciding what to do next.

“We tend to err on the side of compassion,” he said.

It’s a tough stance to maintain when resources are so limited.

According to Karzen, it’s often difficult to place someone in treatment, as opposed to jail, because there aren’t enough options, particularly for people without means or who are experiencing a coexisting substance use issue.

“What would make an immediate difference is if we had more providers,” he said. “I would like to see more treatment providers and more options for in-patient recovery, accessible to people who don’t have a lot of money. That would make things easier for us and better serve our public.”

Judge Mary Hoak of the 14th Judicial DIstrict that serves Grand County has seen numerous cases appear before her that deal with some aspect of mental health. | Photo by Bryce Martin

Fourteenth Judicial District Judge Mary Hoak, who has served on the bench in Grand County for the last 16 years, first as county judge for four years and then in her current position for the last 12, has seen numerous cases involving a subject’s mental health play out in her courtroom.

“Unless you are ‘insane,’ as that term is defined in the Colorado Revised Statutes, you have to answer for what you have done,” Hoak explained, using the word “insane” in the legal sense, defined as having mental illness of such a severe nature that a person cannot distinguish fantasy from reality, cannot conduct their affairs due to psychosis or is subject to uncontrollable impulsive behavior.

But, as Hoak continued, mental health’s place in the law is overly complex.

“… You can’t criminalize mental health, but you also have to hold people responsible for their behavior,” she said. “There’s only so much that you can do as a judge.”

Hoak plays a major part when it comes to sentencing defendants, many times holding their fate in her hands.

“If I can craft a sentencing order to help and support that person, I will,” she explained. But sometimes that depends on the severity of the offense.

Before a person is sentenced, the county’s probation department performs a pre-sentence report to recommend sentencing for a defendant. That process includes a thorough search through a person’s background and suggestions for additional psychological testing if needed.

It is Hoak’s job to offer the final sentence.

Per state guidelines, if she’s able to put somebody on probation, she will “absolutely” recommend treatment if it is indicated. She can recommend mental health treatment if someone goes to community corrections, but when a criminal defendant is sentenced to the Colorado Department of Corrections, it is up to the prison system to address any mental health needs of the defendant.

“I think there are a number of people in the Department of Corrections who suffer from serious mental illnesses,” she professed. “Part of that is, what we as a society require from our mental health system — what we make it do and what we don’t make it do.”

If a person is convicted of first-degree murder, Hoak explained, then that’s a life sentence in prison. “There’s nothing we can do at that point in the court system to assist a criminal defendant with a mental illness,” she said.

For other crimes that involve subjects with a mental illness, and that don’t pursue an insanity plea, Hoak, the prosecutor and probation department will take the defendant’s mental health struggles into account.

“That doesn’t mean there isn’t punishment,” she confirmed. “It isn’t a free pass, so to speak.”

Hoak, who possesses a sympathetic yet professional and firm nature, strongly believes in the judicial system. Though she admitted it isn’t always perfect.

“Are their errors? Yes. Do they get as soon as we know about them? Yes. Do they get fixed when we know about them? Yes,” she said. “But we’re not perfect, and we never will be.”

(TOP) The central booking area of the Grand County jail is typically one of the first stops for an inmate. Patients previously could be held in jails on mental health lockups, even if they had not committed a crime. That changed last year, when the state legislature passed a law banning mental health lock-ups in jails for non-criminal patients. (BOTTOM RIGHT) The Grand County jail has a dedicated mental health safety cell that comes equipped with minimal provisions. Slightly larger than an average elevator, the cell is a single room with a small window, a gymnastics-type mat for bedding and a floor drain that functions as a bathroom. A security camera is stationed on the ceiling in one corner. The conditions are intended to provide additional safety for inmates who may look to harm themselves while in custody. | Photos by Bryce Martin

One of the main tools law enforcement and medical personnel have when interacting with someone experiencing a mental health crisis is an M-1 hold, a form that allows them to place someone on a 72-hour involuntary hold if they are suicidal, homicidal or gravely disabled by their mental illness.

Ellen Cowman, clinical supervisor at Mind Springs Health in Granby, said, depending on the severity of the crisis, counselors have other options, such as safety planning, where the counselor works with the person in crisis to create steps to help them get through the crisis and prevent it from worsening. M-1 holds are typically reserved for the most serious instances.

Cowman explained that M-1 holds are a serious step, which is why in Grand County doctors are the ones typically making that decision for their patients.

“We’re taking away a person’s rights when we do an M-1 hold,” she said. “We’re saying you no longer get to make decisions for you, I’m making your decisions and here’s what you have to do — and we don’t like to do that.”

In an effort to expand law enforcement’s ability to handle a person in crisis without suspending their rights, the state created the M-.5 hold in July 2018. It allows officers to hold someone involuntarily without arrest or charges for up to four hours while they are transported to a facility.

Once a person is placed on an M-1 hold, they are transported and held at psychiatric hospitals, typically West Springs Hospital, or acute treatment units, such as the new one in Frisco. However, while medical personnel search for an open bed, patients usually wait in the emergency room at Middle Park Health.

Patients previously could be held in jails on mental health lockups, even if they had not committed a crime. That changed last year, when the state legislature passed a law banning mental health lock-ups in jails for non-criminal patients.

But when those with mental health do turn physical or commit some form of crime, law enforcement encounters one of its biggest barriers: transportation.

When law enforcement has to transport people with mental illnesses to a treatment facility, protocol set forth by the sheriff’s office dictates that the person has to be handcuffed, which is not ideal for anyone in the situation. But it’s done for the safety of all involved.

“It’s not the best option,” Schroetlin affirmed. “We need to make sure that we have the right tools to help these people without making mental health a criminal issue.”

Using the sheriff’s office as the primary transporting agency in mental health crises also creates strain on its resources.

Typically, people in crisis are transported to the West Springs psychiatric hospital in Grand Junction, which is owned by Mind Springs Health. It’s a trip that can take an officer’s entire day or longer.

The West Springs Hospital, owned by Mind Springs Health, in Grand Junction is the only psychiatric facility west of the Continental Divide to Salt Lake City. Transports from Grand County, namely from the sheriff’s office, must travel nearly 3 1/2 hours one way to transport a patient with mental health concerns. | Courtesy Mind Springs Health

The sheriff’s office estimates that they probably take around 65 to 70 transports to West Springs in a year.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time we never affect our patrol staffing with transports, we pay people on overtime, we send people from our jail staff, so our call response is not affected,” Schroetlin explained. “But it’s a stress on my system.”

The Grand County Board of Commissioners is hoping by working with surrounding Routt, Moffatt and Summit counties, they can try to find a regional solution, but those conversations are in early stages.

Mind Springs has contracted with a security service to provide transport to West Springs, but funding for the contract runs out in December 2019, and other funding for a similar program is hard to come by because insurance isn’t an option.

Insurances, including Medicaid and Medicare, won’t pay for transport by ambulance for a mental health crisis because it’s not considered emergent unless there’s a corresponding physical emergency. Medicaid covers non-emergent transport for hospital visits, but it also doesn’t consider a mental health crisis non-emergent. This creates a loophole where mental health crises are neither emergent nor non-emergent.

Mary, a registered nurse at Middle Park Health-Granby, stands inside one of the examination rooms in the emergency department. The hospital's ER has seen an uptick in the number of patients coming in with a mental health crisis. | Photo by Bryce Martin
People experiencing a severe mental health crisis might visit the trauma bay at Middle Park Health-Granby. | Photos by Bryce Martin

The emergency department at Middle Park Health-Granby sees at least one patient per day for a mental health complaint, most frequently for a crisis of some kind.

“People will wait physically until the very last minute for a mental problem,” said Deb Plemmons, vice president of nursing services at the hospital. “People are going to come in at whatever point they feel comfortable coming in and seeking care.”

Legally, the hospital cannot turn away a patient and, as the only hospital in the county, all patients are transported to one of Middle Park Health’s locations, in Granby or Kremmling.

Because the hospital doesn’t have a respite care or psychiatric facility, patients are usually transported elsewhere if they are not released home. However, finding a bed for them can take anywhere from a few hours to a full day.

“We can’t send a patient back home in a crisis,” Plemmons said. “We have to take care of our patients so we keep them here and keep them safe and work through whatever we need to work through until we can get them a bed.”

Because the county is contracted with Mind Springs, medical personnel typically check the West Springs Hospital first, but they are not restricted to any one hospital.

“Grand Junction is our main hospital, West Springs Hospital, so that’s our first stop that we go to,” Cowman, of Mind Springs, said. “If they say they don’t have any beds then we get approval to look elsewhere, then we look at other hospitals that are mostly on the Front Range.”

But hospitals on the Front Range, which may be closer and more convenient for Grand County residents, aren’t always an option.

“I think it’s a vital problem across the whole state because we’re all vying for these few beds in a few locations and we don’t have them,” Schroetlin said. “If Grand County is busy with mental health, then I know all the other counties are busy with it and there’s only so much room for everyone to go.”

Since mental health concerns are a frequent occurrence, hospital staff is trained in de-escalation and works closely with the crisis counselors at Mind Springs Health in Granby, on top of annual trainings.

Medical providers are constantly holding conversations about what mental health care should look like, according to Plemmons, and she believes that it should be treated more like physical health.

Jason Bryan, vice president of human resources and administration for Middle Park Health, agreed, while emphasizing that more public education and awareness of resources would go a long way in supporting and promoting preventative mental health care.

“You will have crisis moments,” Bryan said, “but if we can work together on preventative measures, I think that’s where we need to focus and to take that next step.”

Rachel Hoyhtya, an East Grand firefighter and member of a local first responder peer support group, met with all of the responders that had been on the scene when a 7-year-old boy died in Grand County earlier this year. She was there to offer a safe space to talk and share resources, all while dealing with her own anxiety issues. | Photo by Bryce Martin

When it comes to mental health, law enforcement officers and emergency responders have to consider their own mental health, as well as that of the people they interact with.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, it’s estimated that 30 percent of first responders will develop a mental health condition. In a report on the mental health of first responders in the country, SAMHSA states that first responders are more likely to experience mental illness because they are more likely to encounter trauma on the job.

Not only are first responders regularly on-scene at dangerous, challenging and draining situations, but they often provide emotional and physical support to the people involved in their calls.

East Grand Fire Protection District No. 1 responded earlier this year to a call about a 7-year-old boy who was having a medical episode. Despite CPR efforts made by first responders on scene, the boy died.

The tragic incident prompted Rachel Hoyhtya, an East Grand firefighter and member of a local first responder peer support group, to meet with all of the responders that had been on the scene to offer a safe space to talk and share resources.

“I reached out to them and they reached out to each other and just kind of started that network,” she explained.

While this is an extreme example of the kind of incident first responders have to deal with on a daily basis, Hoyhtya said it exemplifies why she helped start a first responders peer support group.

“I understand the nature of the first responder world, (...) but I’m also in there in the ditches with everybody and I’m experiencing it with them,” she said. “I’m kind of that safe person for them to talk to.”

Rachel Hoyhtya, an East Grand firefighter, reaches for her helmet inside her locker at the station. | Photo by Bryce Martin

Hoyhtya, who herself experiences anxiety, said even when first responders don’t experience traumatic events, the stress can build up until it’s overwhelming. First responders in smaller communities like Grand County also have to be prepared for the higher likelihood that someone they know will be involved in a call they respond to.

Ultimately, it’s helpful to be able to lean on people who have shared experiences and won’t judge, she said.

“The fire department is like that extended family,” Hoyhtya said. “Just having someone you can call that just understands what you’re saying is huge.”

The sheriff’s office also recently applied for a peace officer mental health support grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs in order to start a peer support group.

First responder agencies typically also have debriefings after traumatic or violent incidents, where the first responders can process what happened and get resources if needed.

“I just want to make sure we’re taking care of our own so we can take care of our citizens,” Schroetlin said.

This is true for all first responders, as well as medical professionals and those who are dealing with mental health patients.

The unexpected death of one a sheriff’s deputy in 2015 put this into perspective.

Alycia Riggs

In the early morning hours of Feb. 3, Alycia Riggs was driving in the snow down Highway 34 to Granby when she came around a corner and her truck slid into the oncoming traffic of the other lane. A milk truck struck the front driver’s side door, fatally injuring Riggs.

Though she had only been with the sheriff’s for office three months or so, Mayer said it was the biggest trauma the team has experienced during his tenure.

“It was a really emotional deal for them pulling up on the scene, seeing a truck they thought was probably hers and getting in there and finding out it was her,” Mayer said.

That day, the sheriff’s office put together a debriefing for the entire staff at the Granby Town Hall, complete with counselors.

“There were specific people who we wanted (the counselor) to sit down and talk to, that knew (Riggs) and were pretty close with her, but then we made it open to anyone who wanted to,” Mayer explained.

He added that counseling was made available for a while after the incident and that the other county police departments helped facilitate additional resources during the sheriff’s office’s time of need, such as covering shifts and providing peer support.

“I just want to make sure we’re taking care of our own so we can take care of our citizens.”

As a judge, Hoak’s duties often put her at risk.

“It is very difficult,” she said. “I have become a more anxious person.”

That’s also attributed to the cases she has seen — particularly those that unfold in her courtroom.

“I am more concerned for loved ones than I would be otherwise because I’ve seen what can happen to people,” she indicated.

For her, receiving a death threat wouldn’t be too uncommon.

She has since become hyper-vigilant, she explained.

Like law enforcement and health care professionals, as a judge, Hoak is also exposed to the heinous actions of criminals, something that could have an effect on her own mental health.

One of the worst things, she said, was having to look at child pornography during a former case. As a mother, the sights were that much more abhorrent. It’s something she was able to forget about until she had a random conversation with a federal district judge several years later.

“We were talking about the pros and cons of the job, and he said to me, ‘The worst thing is when you have to look at child pornography.’ And it all came back,” she said.

And now she can’t rid those images from her mind.

“Those are things you just have to deal with,” she said.

***

In the fourth and final installment, we examine the topic of suicide through stories from friends and family members of those who have taken their own lives. As we conclude our series, we explore the current and future avenues being taking to address the issues we’ve raised about local mental health.

Are you having a mental health crisis? Get help today.

Call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 24/7: 1-800-273-8255

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