Talking through trauma: Routt County crisis support expands outreach, hones vision | SteamboatToday.com
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Talking through trauma: Routt County crisis support expands outreach, hones vision

Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue Acting Interim Chief Chuck Cerasoli, right, evaluates a map of a simulated wildfire with Routt County Undersheriff Doug Scherar and firefighter Marnie Smith. They were part of a county-wide training exercise in October that simulated a wildland fire in Steamboat. Marnie leads a community crisis support team to help Routt County residents work through traumatic experiences.
Derek Maiolo

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Experiencing trauma is an inevitable part of life, but talking about it can be difficult. 

That is why Routt County Crisis Support is working to break down stigmas around mental health support by honing its community crisis response team. 

This represents one of three services the nonprofit provides, according to Board President Molly Lotz. The second arm includes emergency assistance to help people impacted by a tragedy, such as a car crash, find resources to cover damages. The third arm is a first-responder mental wellness program that connects emergency workers and their immediate family with free therapy sessions in the wake of traumatic events.

Emergency responders like firefighters and police officers historically have used debriefings after tragic incidents and a peer support program to help decompress. Steamboat Springs Police Chief Cory Christensen said these programs have helped to demystify the misconception that officers need to bury the trauma they witness.

“We want to be able to talk about things because we know that helps make it better,” Christensen said.

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In 2018, Marnie Smith, a firefighter and paramedic with Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue, founded the Routt County Crisis Support team to expand these initiatives to members of the public who witness these tragedies or play a role in helping, such as providing CPR.   

As she explained, those people often would be forgotten amid the chaos of tragedy as soon as first responders take over a scene.

“We come in, we take over, and we just leave,” Smith said.

The nonprofit now offers free debriefing sessions for those people in the days immediately following the traumatic events. Smith emphasized these are not therapy sessions but a safe, confidential place for individuals to talk about any residual trauma they may be experiencing and to help one another navigate those feelings. 

Lotz said it is important to reach people within 24 to 72 hours following a traumatic event. This is the timeframe during which the brain starts to process and categorize memories of the incident. It also is when people begin to notice side effects of any residual trauma, such as loss of sleep or stress. 

“It gives them a little bit of time to be aware of how the event has affected them,” Lotz said.

If they wait too long, those memories become less accessible and any side effects are harder to treat, she explained, which can lead to long-term consequences, like PTSD. 

Thus far, the debriefings have been well-attended, according to Lotz. About 90% of community members who witness or are somehow involved with a traumatic event participate, she said.

The service has become such an important part of the nonprofit’s work, Lotz added, that the board recently adopted a new vision statement to encompass its greater focus on the public, not just emergency responders.

The statement now reads, “Supporting, guiding and connecting the community and individuals in times of crisis.”

Considering the mental health of people other than emergency responders in the wake of trauma is a novel approach, according to Smith. 

“There really isn’t a blueprint of what we are providing,” she said. “I couldn’t find another team doing what we are doing.” 

Since initiating more support groups, Smith has noticed a greater willingness of people to seek help rather than suppress their emotions.

“What I’m seeing is, the more we talk about it, the more people tap into it,” she said.

This has been particularly true among emergency responders. As Smith explained, a long-held stigma surrounding mental health made firefighters, police officers, medics and others wary of acknowledging how traumatic events affected them for fear it would make them appear weak.  

But as she learned firsthand, talking through those issues has made her a stronger paramedic and deepened her awareness of her own mental health.

“It’s given me a huge understanding of my own PTSD,” Smith said. “There are some things I have not dealt with that I thought I had. It’s been great to finally realize this after 12 years.”

Emergency response agencies throughout Routt County have adopted crisis support programs, she said, which has created a community of support. 

“There is such a better relationship with all of us. We are all checking in on each other,” Smith said.

Her work has even caught the attention of neighboring counties that want to implement similar services. Smith has helped to initiate debriefs among emergency responders in Moffat County. Officials in Pitkin County also have inquired about offering similar community crisis support services there.

Smith applauded the dedication of the Routt County Crisis Support board for supporting ways to expand the program. 

“If someone calls me from another county, and they are looking for help, there is no way we are going to say ‘no,’” Smith said.

For more information on the program or to request a crisis debrief, visit routtcountycrisissupport.org.

The nonprofit also is looking for volunteers to help with the debriefing sessions. No professional training is needed, Smith said. Visit the website for more information.

To reach Derek Maiolo, call 970-871-4247, email dmaiolo@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @derek_maiolo.


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