WSU/ DWMHA Helps First Responders

By on September 3rd, 2015

Tom Watkins

By: Tom Watkins

WSU/ DWMHA Helps First Responders

September 4, 2015

When we hear the term, “Post-traumatic stress disorder,” (PTSD) we think of men and women recently back from battle zones around the globe.  Yet there are people right here at home sworn to protect and serve our communities suffering the repercussions from PTSD: Our local police, fire and other first responders.

The issue of mental illness is often swept under the rug.  In our society, there is an extra stigma attached to first responders that often prevent them from seeking the treatment and support they need and deserve.  This, in spite of the fact that, by the very nature of their job, first responders are routinely exposed to extraordinary stressors.

The Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority (DWMHA) meets regularly with local law enforcement agencies such as the Detroit City Police, Wayne County Sheriff’s Office, Wayne Police Chiefs’ Association, and the Airport Authority Police to build the relationships necessary to better serve and support them.  The DWMHA is also working on establishing community mental health crisis mobilization teams so that our first responders are better equipped to arrive on a scene where a mental health consumer may be in distress.

The stresses caused by the traumatic situations first responders regularly encounter need to be addressed if we are to maintain their overall well-being and help their families understand the complexities of what the people in that profession have to deal with each and every day.


Carmen McIntyre, chief medical officer of the Mental  Health Authority.

“Too frequently, the solution is to use unhealthy coping mechanisms such as alcohol and drugs to address the daily accumulated stress and anxiety.  Unfortunately for many who don’t receive treatment, family members are often collateral damage. Unhealthy coping strategies limit the availability of an officer to engage meaningfully with children or significant others, or build and maintain other important relationships” said Dr. Carmen McIntyre, chief medical officer of the Mental Health Authority.

Mental health services are available to support law enforcement personnel who are experiencing professional, personal, emotional, or behavioral problems that may impact their job performance.  Because it is so important that mental health services be tailored to the individual’s needs, such services can be accessed through multiple pathways.  Avenues to services can be self-initiated, via department referrals, employee assistance programs, or community mental health workers trained to work with law enforcement officers.  All services are provided on demand and in a strictly confidential fashion.

WSU Steps Up

Wayne State University’s Departments of Family Medicine and Psychiatry have made a commitment to develop a comprehensive mental health pilot program to support Fire Fighters and Police Officers in Sterling Heights.  There will be two general categories of service including acute care (e.g. how to address moderate to severe PTSD), and prevention services.  This is yet another example of how our premier urban research university engages and gives back to its community.  Recognized as serious issues within law enforcement, mental health disorders aren’t necessarily limited to any specific race, gender, or socio-economic class.  Nor do they depend upon whether you carry a badge and a gun, or a hose and an axe.  The fact is, one out of four first responders will be impacted by mental illness.


David Rosenberg, M.D

“PTSD is a very disruptive condition for both patients and their families.  In many cases, patients try to self-medicate, which leads to alcohol and drug abuse, behavioral changes and, in some cases, suicide,” said David Rosenberg, M.D., a WSU Physician Group psychiatrist and department chair.  “There are proven therapies and medications to help address PTSD in patients, but these treatments need to be tailored for a particular patient population.  What works for soldiers in the battlefield may be different for a firefighter or police officer.”


Sterling Heights Fire Chief, Chris Martin

Sterling Heights Fire Chief Chris Martin is pleased to partner with WSU and knows the stress and strain his staff is under, “Our men and women spend long careers responding to incidents that wear on their emotions.  Everyone is different in how they handle these trying incidents.  For some, it builds up throughout their careers and for others it can happen after only one incident, but most first responders and military personnel will have some negative reaction to these difficult situations they have dealt with.”

As one local first responder told me, “I have seen things no man should witness.”

Doug Skrzyniarz, Associate Vice President, Government Affairs at Wayne State University School of Medicine and the University Physician Group, excels at building successful bridges between WSU and the community.  He underscores the importance of this pilot project by stating, “We know that when our lives are on the line that Police Officers and Fire Fighters are the first ones on the scene.  They protect our families, our neighborhoods, and are a critical link in getting emergency health care when we need it most.  They have our backs in our time of need.  At the very least, we need to step up and have their backs when they need help.”


Doug Skrzyniarz, Associate Vice President, Government Affairs at Wayne State  

Providing the Tools

Mental health issues also affect officers’ limitations in understanding the behaviors of individuals with a mental illness within the communities they serve.  Far too many of our police officers lack the depth of knowledge necessary to assess and handle situations involving people with mental illnesses.

The Mental Health Authority has offered free 8-hour mental health first aid training courses for the last 18 months, training nearly 4,000 people including police officers, clergy, school counselors and everyday citizens.

The courses are designed to teach citizens methods of assisting someone in the early stages of a mental health challenge or in a mental health crisis and offer knowledge on depression, anxiety/trauma, psychosis and psychotic and substance use disorders including both the risk factors and the warning signs.

Often, stigma or shame prevents people from seeking treatment.  With proper diagnosis, treatment and support, people with mental illness do recover and live meaningful lives.  Without understanding however, it is impossible to accept and handle situations involving mental illness in a healthy manner.

The DWMHA, in partnership with the Flinn Foundation, produced a documentary featuring Detroit Police Chief James Craig on this topic.  He stated that the need for training was a national issue and that additional funding for training was essential.  See the documentary as seen on CBS-Detroit: Opening Minds…Ending Stigma at

Assuring that our first responders have the necessary tools to do their job effectively is everyone’s responsibility in building a safer community.

The DWMHA will continue to engage and partner with first responders to better equip the men and women who protect and serve the citizens of Wayne County.  We are always pleased to partner with WSU to better serve our community.  We appreciate the commitment of Dr. David Rosenberg and his team in this regard.  WSU and the college of Medicine are solid partners.

If you or someone you know is in need of mental health services contact the DWMHA 24 Hour Helpline at 800-241-4949.

Tom Watkins is president and CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority ( He has served the residents of Michigan as State Superintendent of Schools and state Mental Health Director. He can be emailed at: [email protected], or followed on twitter at:@tdwatkins88

Tom Watkins

Tom Watkins has an eclectic career in both the public and private sectors. He served the citizens of Michigan as state superintendent of schools and director of the department of mental health. He has held leadership positions in higher education, business and behavioral health. Watkins has a interest and passion in all things China and has written hundreds of article on the value of this most important bilateral relationship in the world today.

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