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  • Tara Crutchfield

WHPS Rolls Out Holistic Mental Health Program

Winter Haven Public Safety is unrolling a comprehensive and holistic mental health program in the new year. The City of Winter Haven Mental Health Coordinator, Morgan Volpe, and Lieutenant Garett Boyd spearhead this flagship program. We spoke with Volpe about the program’s inception and what they aim to accomplish. 

Volpe, who recently finished her master’s degree in clinical mental health from Stetson University, has been in her role since April. Hers is a new position for the City. Along with Lieutenant Boyd, Volpe is working to revamp the department’s peer support system and unfurl a comprehensive mental health program for all Public Safety personnel, sworn and civilian. They can utilize an app that will link anyone in dire crisis to the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline 988, mindfulness activities, and many others.

According to Volpe, there’s a unique stigma associated with talking about mental health in law enforcement. “A lot of them have that inherent thought of, ‘If I say I’m not doing okay mentally, my job is jeopardized. Because if my superior doesn’t trust me with a gun on my hip, how is the community going to trust me?’” she said. “We’re trying to get down to the core fundamentals of that thought process and reduce that stigma as much as possible.”

She continued, “There’s also a culture of self-reliance and toughness. Many times officers may feel pressure to handle stress and trauma independently, without seeking help. [...] Having someone in their corner that understands exactly what they’re going through is really beneficial.” About 20 first responders are currently enlisted in the program for peer support.

First responders regularly witness traumatizing situations. In addition to psychological first aid and secondary traumatic stress training, the peer support system utilizes the University of Central Florida’s REACT program for first responders. REACT (Recognize. Evaluate. Advocate. Coordinate. Track.) “provides all participants with mastery experiences, designed to give them challenges at which they can succeed, bolstering confidence in their ability to provide effective support to their peers,” according to UCF. “Through this program, participants learn how to recognize “stress injuries” and evaluate the mental health of their peers, offer peer-level support, and effectively coordinate necessary follow-up in the event professional intervention is warranted.”

“It’s going to take time, but I’m hopeful that having that peer support will enable them to start to open up and eventually feel more comfortable with the entire program,” said Volpe.

Hand in hand with peer support will be the mental health program rolling out this month. The program will ensure mental health is regarded with the same importance as physical health. “Those two coincide,” Volpe said. “Mental health and physical health are both health.”

The goal is to approach first responder mental health holistically – to talk about a problem before it becomes critical. The program guarantees confidentiality except in certain circumstances, such as cases where a judge summons Volpe, there’s an indication of child or elder abuse, or if the first responder is having suicidal or homicidal ideations. “And if I do have to say something, it’s through the proper chain of command, and no one else will ever know.” Volpe also notes that in the event that confidentiality had to be broken, the information that she has to share would be extremely specific to the issue at hand in an effort to uphold as much confidentiality as ethically and legally possible in difficult situations like these.

The program will be counseling-focused with the biological, psychological, and social factors of the individual in mind. This will encompass the entirety of their life, from educational background to family dynamics and support networks. This gives Volpe a mental health baseline. The mental health coordinator will help officers and firefighters work through issues like anxiety and depression while being able to refer out to a licensed professional as necessary. Preferably one with the cultural competency of first responders.

“These are human beings. They go through the exact same emotions, maybe even more so than your typical civilian, because they don’t necessarily have an outlet,” she said. “There aren’t a lot of individuals in this profession that are culturally competent to be able to serve the first responder population.” This is the gap Volpe hopes to fill in her new position. The last thing most law enforcement officers and firefighters want to do is talk to someone who sees civilians about anxiety or depression. While the experiences of civilians are valid, “It’s a different type of trauma,” Volpe said.

Compounded stress is one of the most significant issues she sees in first responders. “Without that outlet to get rid of the pressure, the stress, all of the baggage that goes along with seeing all this trauma – it compounds,” she said. “I always equate it to your junk closet,” Volpe explained. You can only put so much stuff into a junk closet and close the door. Eventually, if you don’t organize or purge it, you won’t be able to close the door. “It’s the same thing with compounded stress.”

While working off stress with a run is great, first responders require a healthy mechanism to discuss their stress and trauma. “Having that neurotransmitter enhancement is extremely beneficial, but narrative therapy is crucial for any healing.”

In addition to creating a mental health program for first responders, Volpe keeps track of statistics for Baker and Marchman Acted individuals in the community. “The information I gather helps with the overall goal for community mental health and provides a way for us to specifically target areas of the community that may need more assistance due to intersectionality and a laundry list of other potential factors,” she said. “I track gender, gender assigned at birth, age, race, and many other items. Our crime analyst prepares hot spot maps for me on a monthly basis, which allows me to geographically depict where we can implement high resources in the future.”

“I am aiming at training officers and firefighters more in-depth,” said Volpe. This trauma-informed training will assist first responders during any interaction with the public, from a traffic stop to an arrest, Baker Act, fire, or medical emergency. “Mental health plays a big role in why and how people act.” Being trauma-informed will have officers and firefighters consider many aspects while upholding their duties, ensuring a comprehensive approach to crisis management and public safety is upheld. An assessment officers can make when Baker or Marchman Acting someone is MINDS, taking into consideration if the individual is on medication, has suicidal or homicidal ideations, is on narcotics, has any previous diagnoses, or is exhibiting self-injurious behavior.

The mental health coordinator noted exceptional leadership at the City, calling out City Manager T. Michael Stavres, Deputy City Manager MJ Carnevale, Assistant City Manager – Public Safety Charlie Bird, Police Chief David Brannan, and Fire Chief Sonny Emery. “They care,” she said. “They are very humanistic. They have a lot of empathy. They have a lot of emotional intelligence, which is needed and speaks volumes about why this program is even here.”

“I’m excited to spearhead mental health. To reduce the stigma and be a frontrunner in talking about it and not making it so taboo,” Volpe said. “I’m excited to see where mental health, and specifically first responders, transform to because it’s such new territory.”

Volpe noted that her goal is to bring on more clinicians to the department. “I would love to see this program grow and flourish. Maybe not even solely focused on mental health but for wellness – wraparound wellness.”

Photography by Amy Sexson


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