First Responder Mental Health: When the Helpers Need Help, Who You Gonna Call?
“This is a group that doesn’t talk. They view reaching out as weakness,” says Michelle Monzo, the driving force behind the Montgomery County Critical Incident Support Team, a peer-driven support network for first responders. “They suffer in silence, afraid of speaking out of what they’re struggling with, and they feel alone.” Michelle’s job is to educate first responders about the realities of mental health challenges that may face on the job, and to create safe, supportive spaces for people to get help when they seek it. And like many of the first responders she helps, her passion is saving lives.
“Why are we so unwilling to accept help?” she asks. It’s a simple, but complicated question posed to a group of workshop attendees—one that involves a culture of machismo, stigma about mental health issues, and a need for first responders to feel that they are in control at all times. At Montgomery County Emergency Service (MCES), Michelle teaches a basic and advanced course for first responders called CIS (Crisis Intervention Specialist) training. In the advanced class, which I attended in preparation for making this series, Michelle deftly addresses many critical issues unique to the first responder community.
What I experienced is, I suspect, the key to her success: frank talk combined with abundant warmth and kindness, a light and self-deprecating sense of humor, testimony about lived experience with the trauma associated with first responder work, and her comfort in being honest about her own mental health journey (Michelle lives with depression). Oh, and her skillful command of profanities helps as well—she effortlessly creates a climate of camaraderie and comfort, so that no subject is taboo of off limits. Equal parts listener and preacher, Michelle creates safe spaces for first responders when they feel like they may need mental health assistance. More often than not, those same men and women become peer counselors and passionate advocates for mental health in the first responder realm.
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In addition to trainings that make first responders aware of their own mental health, Michelle also conducts trainings to help police recognize and respond to people suffering from serious mental illness, potentially reducing injuries to officers and the mentally ill as well as the frequency of arrests.
Michelle’s story is part of Beneath the Vest, a special first responder series created by OC87 Recovery Diaries that explores the mental health journeys of the men and women who have chosen a career to help others, and realize they need to help themselves along the way. We salute her and thank her for the remarkable work she is doing in our world, and know you’ll enjoy hearing her story.