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KCKFD Peer Support, golf foundation partner to improve firefighters’ mental health

Posted: 6:23 PM, May 15, 2024
Updated: 2024-05-16 09:57:43-04
KCKFD Mental Health
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Editor's Note: This story is part of a series of stories, "Are You OK?" from KSHB 41 News and the KSHB 41 Community Advisory Board during Mental Health Awareness Month. Additional mental health resources are available in Kansas and Missouri. Help is always available by dialing 988.

Some sources of trauma and stress are easy to identify.

When firefighters have to rescue people from a burning building or provide assistance at a bad car crash, it’s easy to recognize the stress involved, but other times it’s more subtle.

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Even mundane aspects of the job — like working 24-hour shifts — can create stress for first responders, as we learned from two members of the KCK Fire Department— Peer Support Coordinator Mallory Super and Capt. Steve Pope.

“Especially those coming on that maybe haven't worked this kind of shift work before, just what do I do?” said Super, a licensed first responder psychologist. “How do I kind of adjust to this type of schedule? When do I grocery shop? The stuff that kind of the seasoned veterans take for granted. Those just starting out don't really know how to kind of organize their life. As you go on, you do develop coping mechanisms.”

Beyond the challenges of the job, firefighters face the same issues at home and with family as anyone else.

“Life doesn't stop when you're at the fire station, so that kind of adds another layer of things because you are on a 24-hour shift and you can't just leave work necessarily to go tend to what needs to be tended to,” Super said.

She helped launch the KCKFD Peer Support Program, which trains members of the department who are embedded at firehouses to be peer counselors of sorts, in 2018.

“We were kind of behind the times when it came to it (mental health),” Super said. “Pretty much every metro agency had some type of peer support, so we realized, ‘Maybe we do need to do something about our mental health.’”

Super started doing things on her before the department made the program official, and she knows the program has made an impact.

“We've had a couple tragedies where it absolutely was helpful, so that just speaks to why it's necessary,” Super said.

The goal often is as simple as starting a conversation and providing an outlet for KCKFD firefighters and staff.

“We provide resources to people, we are an ear for those that may want to talk to us, we just try to provide understanding when they go through bad situations, whether that's at work or at home,” Super said.

She’s also learned it’s critical to meet people where they are in their mental health journey, including a partnership with the First Responders Golf Foundation, which Pope started in 2020 after detailing his mental health struggles on social media.

“My story was taking that anger home to my family,” Pope said. “That's how I manifested. Things they would do to trigger me at home. You know, some of us die by suicide because they can't handle all of that — the family life, this job — so I wanted to tell my story.”

Pope’s foundation offers first responders a chance to connect in a more relaxed atmosphere — out on the links.

“The people that we have had out on the golf course, it opens up, it frees their mind, I think,” he said. “They're less restricted to talk because, as you're saying, less clinical.”

As a 28-year veteran of the department, he’s seen the difference starting a conversation makes in the bunkhouse.

“Anymore now, we talk around the kitchen table about the calls we ran,” Pope said. “Whereas, in the past, when I came on the job, you didn't — and that stuff builds up.”

The key is finding healthy ways to release it and process the emotions that come with the job and with life. It won’t stop bad things from happening, but they’re easier to cope with.

Pope said the golf events don’t replace the need for therapy with a licensed counselor in some cases, but they can help people get comfortable with the process.

“The therapy, the sitting on the couch, that's not for everybody,” Super said. “But having someone who gets it and being able to be physically active and maybe learn a new sport or continue a hobby — awesome. That is fantastic. To make new connections, yes, I'm here for it.”

The impact — via social media for the First Responders Golf Foundation and with the KCKFD Peer Support Program’s reach — goes well beyond KCK.

“We went to a small town in Kansas and they'd had a fatality fire — never really had anything like that,” Super said. “Just to be able to sit down with them for a solid three hours and talk about it, and to see the actual relief on those people's faces. I mean, that's it — I know my why.”

If you are struggling with your mental health, text or call 9-8-8 to reach the suicide and crisis lifeline. Your employer may also offer resources through an employee assistance program.