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Health, Science & Environment

New wellness center dedicates mental health resources for Columbus' emergency workers

Columbus police officer Don Paden and firefighter Stephen Kern are working to destigmatize mental health treatment among emergency workers.
Tyler Thompson
Columbus police officer Don Paden and firefighter Stephen Kern are working to destigmatize mental health treatment among emergency workers.

Mental health awareness has made great strides in forward in recent years, however, it still can be difficult for police officers and firefighters to admit they need treatment.

A new program in Columbus is trying to change that. The Public Safety Wellness Center offers services only to public safety workers and their families. The center aims to destigmatize health treatment.

The subject of mental health among first responders used to be taboo, said Columbus police officer Don Paden who has been on the job for 32 years.

“My generation of officers you didn’t go to get any mental health," Paden said. "If you did, then you were looked upon as weak or there was that fear that you were going to have that title of being crazy. You also worried that you were going to have your gun and badge taken away from you.”

Paden said he bottled up his emotions and turned to drinking to cope with his on the job trauma. That only made things worse, he said. After some conflicts, Paden was ordered to seek counseling.

“Which was the best thing that could have ever happened 'cause I was forced to deal with it," he said. "I went to the counseling and it helped me tremendously. I have realized how much I was wrong with not getting that mental health help.”

Columbus firefighter Stephen Kern said he also thought he could cope with his mental issues.

“For me, I’m a fixer," Kern said. "When you need help you call and have us come fix it. So it’s really humbling when you’re going through something as a Mr. Fix It and you realize, I can’t even fix myself.”

Family and friends urged Kern to seek assistance, so he reached out to Columbus Fire Lt. Dave Gerold who supervises the fire division’s Member Support Unit. Kern said it was a moment that changed his perceptions of mental health.

“For me, he suggested a program that I attend," he said. "And I attended that. To say that the program along with my support system that I have now, completely changed my life is an understatement.”

Kern is now a member of the support unit, which works out of the Wellness Center.

“We’re human," he said. "We’re going to see things that humans shouldn’t see and do things. It’s going to affect us and that’s okay, but it’s understanding that there’s a healthy way to deal those stressors.”

Columbus City Council approved funding for the wellness center in 2021. It’s a total investment of $3.2 million. Construction started in August 2021 and was completed in April this year. The wellness center’s location is confidential to protect employees.

The Wellness Center is staffed with counselors from the city’s Employee Assistance Program, or EAP, along with peers and chaplains with training from the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation. It’s a program designed to help people cope with critical incidents.

Gerold said the center is set up to serve people with varying levels of needs.

“We were able to take a member recently from that first contact at peer support and say hey look this is going to require next level care and concern. And we were able to walk down the hall to EAP with Lisa and her team and do a warm handoff. It’s something that’s happening because we are in one building.”

Lisa is Lisa Callander, who directs the employee assistance program. She said they have a space in the center for private confidential counseling to assist those with greater needs.

“They can come in and talk to someone with fire member support, the police peer team, they can talk to the chaplain and any one of those points might be what they need,” she said.

Current programs include first responder outreach to active, retired and responder’s family members. There is mental health and wellness check-ins, yoga, meditation, podcasts, classes and more. Future programming will include physical and well-health education, retiree issues, sleep hygiene and diet education, targeted programming for military personnel and families among others.

Services aside, Callander said first responders don’t need a reason to stop by.

“Come for a cup of coffee, come for a slushie. It might be for other reasons as well. But we really want all of our first responders to stop by here to get familiar with the facility, to know how it operates and make some connections so that when and if they’re in need it’s a little easier to come through.”

Firefighter Stephen Kern and police officer Don Paden will both be part of the future of the wellness center as peer support. Paden said he hopes future of generations of public safety employees can find refuge in asking for help.

“I’ve made the comment that I hope that one day, that we are just as proud saying hey, 'I’m going to the wellness center to work on my mental health;' be just as proud to say that as they do saying hey I’m gonna to the gym and workout,” he said.

Health, Science & Environment
Tyler Thompson was a reporter and on-air host for 89.7 NPR News. Thompson, originally from northeast Ohio, has spent the last three years working as a Morning Edition host and reporter at NPR member station KDLG Public Radio and reporter at the Bristol Bay Times Newspaper in Dillingham, Alaska.