A nonprofit in upstate New York is offering first responders and corrections officers free telehealth therapy to health trauma.
Rotterdam-based nonprofit Operation At Ease (OAE) began offering mental health services to first responders in Schenectady County in early February after a fundraising event.
Brooke Fox, a licensed mental health counselor from Ballston Spa, is leading the program.
Fox said that first responders can visit operationatease.org to be matched with a therapist and receive free therapy for up to one year.
“These changes are made possible by the generosity of the Schenectady Police Department and Schenectady Department of Corrections. They made us their Pig Bowl recipients and we hit the ground running. If you are a veteran or first responder in need of services, please visit operationatease.org to see how we can help,” OAE wrote on Facebook.
According to Fox, the therapists are all trained in treating trauma. No insurance is required.
“We just hit the ground running with this telehealth initiative, trying to make mental health services more accessible for the first responders and corrections officers of the Capital Region,” Fox said.
Fox said the program is starting in Schenectady County right now but they plan to expand to other counties in the future.
“We’re starting with Schenectady County right now just so that we don’t go outside our means. We want to make sure we’re meeting the [needs] we can but we do hope to grow it to other counties as time goes on,” she said.
Therapists volunteering for the nonprofit can also learn from working with police officers who may be struggling with PTSD.
“We can fully anticipate any of the first responders or corrections officers who do reach out for services are probably coming with a trauma background given the nature of the work that they do. We just want our therapists to have that as a skill set to know what trauma looks like, how trauma affects our bodies physically, mentally, emotionally, how it affects us at home, at our job, in our relationships. Just to provide that information to any clients who might come in so that they don’t look at any struggles as a personality defect,” Fox explained.
OAE typically works with veterans and fire responders, but has not worked with law enforcement so far.
In the past, the nonprofit has paired patients with rescue dogs and offered a free guided training program for treating PTSD.
The funds for the new law enforcement-focused program came through an annual football game between the Schenectady Police Department and the Schenectady County Sheriff’s Department. The departments raised more than $16,000 for OAE to go to program dedicated to helping first responders.
This will be the first telehealth program offered by OAE, and its entirely confidential.
“I think it’s very hard when you are the pillar of strength in rescue to [say] ‘I need help’ because you’re the person who helps everyone else,” OAE founder Joni Bonilla said.
“There’s not going to be any consequences at their job if they start opening up about their mental health challenges or struggles. That’s why we try to advertise as much as we can that this is 100% HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act)-compliant, it’s confidential. We are not reporting back to your chain of command, we won’t be speaking to anyone on the inside of your organization. This is all for you,” Fox said.
The OAE is also offering therapy dog visits for first responders, who can request a visit and the nonprofit will send a dog over for emotional support.
Schenectady Officer Jonathan Govel, who helped organize the Pig Bowl, appreciated the work done by Bonilla, Fox and the OAE.
“We greatly appreciate that. It was a surprise that she got it up and running so quickly. Hopefully, we can form a working relationship and it’s going to be another resource that our peer support team can use,” Govel said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, law enforcement officers and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. In addition, EMS workers are 1.39 times more likely to die by suicide than the public.
Schenectady is located in eastern upstate New York.