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ATSU-CGHS alumnus advocating for first responder mental health training

A recent A.T. Still University-College of Graduate Health Studies (ATSU-CGHS) Doctor of Health Sciences (DHSc) online program graduate’s Applied Research Project and advocacy efforts are helping to change the way first responders approach their mental health.

Robert Chalmers, DHSc, ’22, is the senior executive officer of public safety in Pasco County, Florida, where he has been advocating for substantial changes at the county level to ensure better care for the mental health needs of first responders and their family members.

First responders, including firefighters, police officers, and EMTs, are typically the first to arrive at dangerous, challenging, and traumatic situations. According to a 2018 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), an estimated 30% of first responders develop behavioral health conditions, compared with 20% of the general population.

Dr. Chalmers’ research project, entitled “Mental Health of First Responders,” was co-written with ATSU-CGHS associate professor Jeffrey Alexander, PhD, FAACVPR, ACSM-CEP. In this study, the two surveyed 433 first responders using an online survey in order to explore how their job duties affect their mental health and their employers’ roles in providing mental health treatment.

After completing his research project and graduating from ATSU, Dr. Chalmers took the data collected from the study back to Pasco County, where he partnered with Tampa Bay Psychology Associates (TBPA) to expand the county’s Occupational Health program to implement mental health training.  

“Often, we go to our primary care physician for an annual physical, however, many of us overlook the need to check on our own mental health,” Dr. Chalmers said. “Since graduation, I have worked with our internal and external stakeholders to implement a mental health program that provides all members an annual ‘neck-up, check-up.’”

This expanded mental health program provides first responders with access to free annual mental health check-ins, unlimited ongoing mental health counseling sessions, 24/7 clinical coverage, and more. 

“We also looked to provide quarterly ‘lunch and learns’ for our members with a psychologist to help reduce the stigma related to mental health, and break down any barriers for members who do not feel comfortable seeking treatment in a 1:1 environment at this time,” Dr. Chalmers added. 

Not only does this expanded mental health program provide resources for Pasco County first responders themselves, but also for their families. 

Dr. Chalmers said, “First responders also have an increased risk of divorce due to their stressful jobs, sleep deprivation, long work hours, etc., so we have also incorporated a 50% reduced rate for the spouses and children of our first responders so they may have the support needed to best support their first responder spouses.”

Through this program, Dr. Chalmers hopes to help reduce the stigma around mental health, while breaking down barriers to access to care for all first responders, both in Pasco County and beyond. 

Read Dr. Chalmers’ full research project, which was published in the Journal of Emergency Medical Services, here.

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