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New App Aims to Improve Well-Being of Douglas County's First Responders

For the past three years, more first responders across America have died by suicide than in the line-of-duty.  A new app designed to improve the health and well-being of first responders (and their families) is now in use in Douglas County. (Photo by Katie Counts)

Parts of this story suffered from audio playback impairment when broadcast over the air this (FRI) morning. We are working to resolve this issue. The impairment did not affect all radios and receivers, so for some listeners, nothing seemed amiss. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 40,000 people each year die by suicide -- making it one of the nation's leading causes of death. Among those at the highest risk: first responders. Douglas County is trying to do something about that. KPR News Intern Katie Counts has more.

Katie Counts is a junior from St. Louis, studying journalism at the University of Kansas.



New App Aims to Improve Health and Well-Being of Douglas County's First Responders

LAWRENCE, Kan. (KPR) -- According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 40,000 people a year die by suicide -- making it one of the nation’s leading causes of death. Among those at the highest risk: first responders. 

For the last three years, more police officers have died by suicide than in the line-of-duty. That’s according to the law enforcement wellness charity Blue H.E.L.P. Nationwide, last year more than 250 first responders died by suicide-that includes police, firefighters and EMTs.

So why is this?

“They see some of the most horrific things out there and then we’re supposed to be the people there that just go deal with it and go home,” said Douglas County Sheriff Ken McGovern. “But the problem is, yeah you go home, but you pack it in and you just continue to pack.”

Despite often being the first to help, first responders are often the last to seek help for themselves. Attribute this to the culture that has historically surrounded this line of work. These are the kinds of jobs where speaking up about your own mental health issues can make you seem weak. It’s something Lt. Jay Armbrister knows all too well. He says he himself could have easily been a statistic. Armbrister spent years covering horrific cases. Seeing all of that trauma, began to take its toll. He started suffering from anxiety, depression and had thoughts of suicide. He didn’t feel like he could reach out. “I felt like all these people have done this job for decades. I work with all these people who see the same things I do and they’re fine,” Armbrister said. “Why am I not fine? Why? Why me? What’s wrong with me? Why am I so weak?” Armbrister decided to get help. He went to therapy, got on medication and he even attended a retreat for first responders who experienced trauma. All of which helped. Now, first responders like Armbrister have another tool—an app for their smartphones.

At the start of summer, all Douglas County first responders and their families were given access to an app, which they can use anonymously, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “It’s at the touch of a phone so everybody will have it,” McGovern said. “They don’t have to go to their desk computers or anywhere else like they do now. This information will be at the touch of a finger and 24 hours a day, 365 days. And so that’s the information we’re trying to share with our first responders is easily accessible to them.”

The app is called GuardianNET. It was designed by the company Cordico. Earlier this year, the Douglas County Commission signed a $50,000 contract to use the app for a year. The app offers over 40 resources helpline numbers, mindfulness exercises, and counseling services. It also offers resources for financial fitness, nutrition and goal setting.

"We’re trying to go for what you might call, the whole, the well officer, the whole because each first responder is different,” said Paul Taylor, the first responder care coordinator for Douglas County. “They come from different backgrounds. Even though their training and uniforms are the same, their duties often are different. What they’re exposed to is always different. And so each person has things that work for them that kind of fill them back up emotionally.”

Officials hope this app will be effective but acknowledge it will be hard to track the results. The anonymity of the app makes it tricky to know who’s using it and how the app might be helping. Even so, Taylor hopes this new technology will at least help those who may not want to publicly ask for help. “As we encourage people and help reduce the stigma, the unspoken stigma of reaching out and getting help,” Taylor said. “Good people, tough people, smart people, strong people reaching out to say ‘I’ve hit my limit today.’”

Sheriff McGovern agrees.  

“It’s the right thing to do,” McGovern said. “I mean, we spend all this time and energy on our folks and I think it’s what they deserve. The big thing is giving our folks access to whatever services they need and being able for people to go through a long career and retire and live long and proper. And so, if we can, kind of, avert some tragedies out there that’s the biggest thing.”


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