When Chris Macklin left the scene of the Columbine High School shootings in 1999, all he wanted to do was talk with his peers about what they’d just experienced.
Macklin, a Denver paramedic at the time, was 28 and had no way to know what he would see when he walked into the school library that morning.
“The most difficult thing wasn’t the work there. It was what happened after,” Macklin said.
Macklin felt frustrated by the program in place at the time to help emergency responders deal with the trauma stemming from such an event. He wasn’t given a chance to be around peers and he wasn’t told how to cope in the following days, he said.
“And then I did everything wrong,” he said. “I went home and I had a few drinks and I watched the news all night.”
This experience led Macklin in 2012 to take over the peer support team and wellness program of South Metro Fire Rescue, he said.
“How do we make sure what happened to me doesn’t happen to other people?” he said.
Macklin, along with two other Douglas County emergency responders, spoke about their experiences with trauma and mental wellness for a new podcast called “Everyday Brave.”
A nonprofit called The Connection Project is producing the podcast, which will have 12 episodes. All available episodes, which also will include conversations with Arapahoe County responders, are online at realpeoplereallife.org/everydaybrave and new episodes will be added once a week through January.
Jason Hopcus, the nonprofit’s founder, started the group to create connections and foster communication between people. Hopcus is also the CEO of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Arapahoe and Douglas Counties, which is a partner in the project. Hopcus began the podcast because of the struggles facing the responder community specifically, he said.
“I think they need the support,” he said.
The goal of the show is to connect responders with resources that can help them, he said.
Macklin, for instance, spoke about how his 32-member peer support team works.
When responders are sent on a difficult assignment, trained members of the peer support team check in on them. They’re also available to talk confidentially if needed, he said.
“The first line of defense is peer-to-peer counseling or venting,” Macklin said.
Two things the team has focused on are normalizing people’s stress responses and encouraging them to give firsthand testimonies of their experience.
“That would be my advice,” Macklin said. “Be willing to recognize that your response is normal no matter what it is.”
And so far, it looks like it’s helping, Macklin said.
“More men and women are willing to tell people how they’re feeling after a call,” he said.
Macklin’s episode will be available in early December, Hopcus said.
Dan Brite, the wellness coordinator for the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, was featured in the first episode of the podcast.
Brite was shot in the line of duty in 2016 and nearly died. Afterward, he realized the importance of speaking up about mental health, he said in the episode.
“That was my breaking point,” he said. “I needed help. I had depression, I had suicidal thoughts. I was traveling down that road of just being bitter and angry toward anyone and everything.”
In his episode, Brite encourages responders to check in with a psychologist once in a while.
“The amount of things we deal with in this profession, it’s not normal for a human being to experience that much trauma and sadness and loss and violence,” he said. “It takes a toll.”
Brite also points out that there are nearly 190 critical incidents in a typical first responders’ career.
“Every one of those is an opportunity for PTSD, depression and unhealthy coping mechanisms to start to work into their lives,” he said.
The third responder featured in the podcast is Ben O’Brien, a fire responder for SMFR. O’Brien supports the wellness programs and promotes mindfulness practices and skills to support responders, Hopcus said.
His episode will come out at the beginning of December.
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