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Grant funding would expand counseling options for sheriff's deputies and first responders

Christian Burney
LA Junta Tribune

On Tuesday, Undersheriff Matthew Wallace provided the La Junta Tribune-Democrat with insight into how the Otero County Sheriff's Office would utilize funding Wallace and Mollie Brown of the commissioner's office submitted a grant application for.

Brown and Wallace worked on the grant application together, she said.

A peer support group has been around about a year, Wallace said, but it hasn't received any funding. The Peace Officers Mental Health Support Grant would provide funding for the peer support group, which would not only benefit sheriff's deputies but other first responders such as firefighters, EMS personnel and police officers.

"Looking at this grant application was sort of two-fold as far as what it could do for the sheriff's office and other first responders in the area," said Wallace. "Part one was funding the peer support group that is in Otero County. That's made up of law enforcement, fire and EMS. The idea behind the peer support group is basically being able to be there for first responders, not just our agency, but other first responders; firefighters, EMS personnel, police officers, troopers, folks in that field when they deal with critical incidents that are very difficult to deal with ..."

"It's a way of having people you can talk to with a degree of confidentiality without having to go to a formal therapist. More beneficial than talking to a therapist because it's somebody that's been there, that can relate, that can understand some of the things that they're going through."

The peer support group serves as a network for one-on-one sessions between first responders who need someone to talk to. It doesn't host large sessions between multiple people because of the possibility of causing more trauma, Wallace said.

The undersheriff explained that in the past, after a critical incident that could possibly cause secondary trauma, first responders would go through what Wallace called a critical incident debrief.

"But now we're hearing from medical health professionals that that could actually be causing additional trauma to the people that may have been on scene that didn't experience the perspective that other people had in relation to that scene," said Wallace.

He couldn't share specific examples due to confidentiality reasons, but Wallace offered one from his own experiences:

"I recall specifically, I was on one, where it was my understanding that the person was going to survive the incident, and I had to learn in a critical incident debrief that the person was not going to," said Wallace. "That was not a good way to find out. What they're finding out now just by communication with mental health professionals is that instead of getting everybody together and everyone's in one room talking about this stuff, maybe it's better to have a peer that you can go to and say, 'Hey, I'm having a hard time with this one.' And just have somebody to open up to."

In some cases, sheriff's deputies might feel more comfortable talking to a professional therapist, however. That's where the second piece of the Peace Officers Mental Health Support Grant funds would come into play if the grant is accepted.

The grant would fund the use of services offered by Code 4 Counseling based in the Denver Metro Area, Wallace said. Wallace wants to reserve preset time slots for the sheriff's deputies' professional counseling services in case they need it.

"The reason we chose this particular group (Code 4 Counseling) is they specialize with working with first responders," said Wallace. "I thought that was really important because that's all they do. They have a better understanding of what our deputies go through and a better understanding of what our deputies' needs are. I thought that was really important to pre-fund those slots for our folks."

Tribune-Democrat reporter Christian Burney can be reached by email at cburney@ljtdmail.com. Help support local journalism by subscribing to the La Junta Tribune-Democrat.