‘It’s OK to not be OK’: Fairfax Co. opens doors to mental health facility for first responders

First responders and 911 call takers facing the stress and challenges of the job in Fairfax County, Virginia, will now have a new place to connect with mental health professionals.

The Fairfax County Public Safety Wellness Center held its grand opening on Monday.

“Firefighters, police officers see things that are not normal and we see things that are not normal at a rate much higher than the rest of the population … so I think to be able to have some place where, minimally, you can go and talk about your experiences to make sure you’re in the best place personally to serve this community is the absolute way forward,” said Fairfax County police Chief Kevin Davis.

Police and firefighters have higher rates than the general public of stress, depression and suicide, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and there’s often a stigma among public safety officers in seeking out mental health services.

“The fact that this is off site, I think is going to encourage more police officers, more firefighters to go have that initial conversation … maybe they just want to talk about something that they saw, something that they experienced and they just want to get it off their chest, and that’s what this place is all about,” Davis said.

The new facility is located inside an eight-story office building on 12015 Lee Jackson Memorial Highway in Fairfax.

“It’s a beautiful 7,500 square-foot facility, 15 offices, right now we currently have five clinicians. We’re going to add a few more clinicians … a diverse group of clinicians that can meet a broad population,” said Battalion Chief Brian Edmonston, who oversees the occupational health center and the health programs of Fairfax County firefighters.

Public safety leaders said that it’s critical that first responders get the mental support they need to cope with dangerous conditions and confronting emotionally-draining tragedies.

“Sometimes you can’t un-see what you see. And post-traumatic stress is a real thing and kind of cumulative in regards to how it impacts the person’s mind, soul and body, the whole person,” said Fire Chief John Butler. “And we have to take the stigma off this. The days of being tough and ‘I can handle anything and everything’ sometimes has not been helpful in public safety.”

“This is going to be a collaborative effort to provide mental health wellness for our public safety personnel … to provide clinical services, therapy, anything that our public safety [personnel] needs to ensure that they are at their best self.” said Vera Daniel, director of the Fairfax County Police Department Health and Wellness Division.

Dick Uliano

Whether anchoring the news inside the Glass-Enclosed Nerve Center or reporting from the scene in Maryland, Virginia or the District, Dick Uliano is always looking for the stories that really impact people's lives.

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