By Jane Smith

    Consideration for the mental health of first responders in the heroin epidemic is being voiced by their chiefs in the South County.
    At a U.S. attorney’s town hall meeting called to build awareness of the exponential increase in heroin and opioid overdoses, Boca Raton Police Chief Dan Alexander said he is concerned about the impact on his staff.
    “Each one of the cases is an individual,” Alexander said. He said Boca Raton police responded to 80 overdoses this year and witnessed 10 fatalities, far fewer than in other South Florida cities.
    Alexander participated on the law enforcement panel along with Delray Beach Police Chief Jeff Goldman. Delray Beach police saw 465 overdoses and 45 fatalities this year as of Aug. 31, according to Police Department data. Most of the overdoses and fatalities involved heroin.
    Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg moderated the panel. He is leading a Sober Homes Task Force designed to weed out rogue opertors by strengthening laws and making recommendations to the 2017 Florida Legislature.
    In April, Danielle O’Connor, who was then Delray Beach fire chief, told the City Commission about the rise in overdose calls and their effects.
    “We are running on 10 to 12 overdoses a day. Sometimes the same person will overdose three days in a row,” she said. “We had a death this morning. It takes a toll on my personnel.”
    But the depth of the emotional toll is not clear because counseling sessions, a benefit offered by cities, are confidential.
    To address the mental health issues, Jeff Dill, a 26-year firefighter veteran who is a mental health counselor, started the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance in Arizona.
    Each fire-rescue person has an individual emotional response to an overdose, Dill said by phone. “It depends on what is going in your life at that moment. If it is one (overdose) after another, the fire-rescue person could be blasé. Or it could be traumatic for someone who lost a friend or a family member to a heroin overdose.”
    His 5-year-old organization offers workshops about stress on the job that leads to anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Workshops also cover suicide prevention.
    “There’s cultural brainwashing when you are trained to be a medic,” Dill said. The training often neglects the behavioral side, he said.
    Dill also tracks and verifies suicides by firefighters. As of Sept. 15, he had verified 91 suicides nationally, compared with 131 for 2015. He estimates he finds out about 40 percent of the suicides.
    Police officers also can have emotional responses to overdose calls, said Debra Lynn Weiss, a licensed mental health counselor at the University of Florida.
    “Does the officer have a ritual after arriving home — take a shower or go for a run?” Weiss said. “Do they have supportive family and friends?”
    The frequency of overdose calls definitely takes an emotional toll and it can affect relationships, she said.
    The problems could show in trouble falling or staying asleep, having nightmares, avoiding the overdose calls and increased edginess, said Weiss, who served two years as victim advocate for the UF police force.
    “If alcohol or pot was a coping mechanism, its use could increase,” Weiss said.

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