Randy Yohe Published

First Responders Form Grassroots Mental Health Support Service

EMS workers load, and unload three different vehicles. The air is gray, and Drury and the pavement is wet.Courtesy

Faced with mounting suicides and PTSD rates, some West Virginia first responders struggling with job-related mental health issues are taking matters into their own hands.  

Randy Yohe spoke with Dylan Oliveto, the founder of SCARS Support Services. SCARS stands for “shared compassion and resource services,” an organization to help first responders in times of personal crisis.  

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Yohe: Dylan, tell me what the philosophy and impetus is behind SCARS.

Oliveto: As many folks have talked about mental health among first responders and frontline workers, it has come to the forefront in the last couple of years, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic. We started identifying more and more folks that were suffering from PTSD, and having some mental health problems that went undiagnosed for years. Basically, this was really an idea on a napkin not too awful long ago. We wanted to find a way to help our fellow first responders and until you’ve experienced that, you really don’t realize you need it, and my own personal struggles is where this idea was born.

Yohe: Talk to me a little bit about your personal struggles and how this related to you helping get this organization started.

Oliveto: I’ve been in the business for about 25 years. We don’t realize the stressors that we put on ourselves. I was unfortunate enough to see my first fatal accident at 16 years old. That was clear back in 1996, when I first started. So over the years, you have trauma that continues to build. You go from this traumatic scene, and then the next traumatic scene erases that memory. And so we just have this constant barrage of these memories that keep building up. For me personally, I’ve worked in the fire service, both paid and professional EMS, as an EMT, paramedic, I went on to be a flight paramedic, and a director level manager and operations of EMS organizations. I’ve had the fortune of working for very great organizations, taking care of some really sick patients and some really ugly trauma patients. In 2021, while I was an operations director, I had a paramedic get stabbed on a call, he took five stab wounds, patient became violent, and got out of his seatbelt. And that started to trigger problems. Shortly after that call, I ended up taking care of a lot of our own employees that were really suffering mentally, of seeing that scene and to know that we had a colleague and a friend that, luckily, had non-life threatening injuries. But that result could have been much different with just a few inches of a knife blade. From that call, the rest of the year was just bad call after bad call. My tipping point was a traumatized infant. Through that, it forced me to take a step back and care about my own mental health, but also start researching how to prevent this build up that our first responders see day in and day out.

Yohe: Do first responders around West Virginia get to take a breath between calls, especially between traumatic calls or is it right off to the next one?

Oliveto: It’s hit or miss. I think most first responders would agree that when you have one bad call, you have a string of bad calls. And then you’ll go to times where nothing’s ever routine and you don’t have traumatic experiences. I think almost any first responder you talk to would say, “Oh, yeah, I had a month’s worth of really nasty calls.” I can remember at a very young age, in the Morgantown area, we had several fatal accidents over the span of maybe 30 days, So we just get a buildup. When many of us started, there was no support, other than talking about it, maybe with your partner, but if it bothered you, it was portrayed as a weakness. We had this very much “suck it up” and deal with it, move on to the next call attitude. And that broke a lot of our first responders over the years,

Yohe: We’ve heard that term quite a bit, “suck it up.” Some say that’s an expired term when it comes to first responders, others say no, that there’s still a pervasive “suck it up” attitude throughout the business, which is it?

Oliveto: The unfortunate part is many of our current administrators come from the “suck it up” era. A lot of these folks that come from that timeframe, are in a position where they’re not on the truck as much anymore, they’re not out in the field as much anymore, they’re not working directly in the emergency room anymore, so on and so forth. They don’t have a full grasp of how bad it has gotten out in the field. Not only are we dealing with trauma, but now we’re dealing with a post-pandemic of just call after call after call, we’re dealing with overdose after overdose. The service that is provided by fire and EMS, law enforcement, the volume itself is so taxing that that’s a whole new stressor that a lot of people are not ready to handle.

Yohe: State EMS Director Jody Ratliff said that he is working as hard as he can to put that “suck it up” attitude in the past.

Oliveto: He is. And he’s got a really good backing from the State Medical Director. Our state is very fortunate to now have a director and a medical director who understands the current situation of EMS and the current situations of care providers. And I do believe that he’s working very hard with not only the agencies but at the state and federal level to make sure that there’s funding and resources in place to get our responders to help that they need.

Yohe: I see on your website where SCARS offers a “judgment free zone” and a place “where it’s okay to not be okay.”

Oliveto: That’s kind of become the catchphrase of a lot of our responders throughout the state and actually throughout the country. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit a lot of places where they are very serious about mental health. That kind of slogan is making the newer responders and even the older responders understand that it is okay to not be okay. And it is okay that this trauma does affect you on a daily basis. What we wanted to make sure to try to provide was a space that was safe, where we could allow people to interact with each other, share their stories, share their problems, and not have any fear of being mocked or made to feel like less of a responder or less of a person for allowing these calls to bother them. Because, a normal human being does not have to see what we see.

Yohe: You’ve got your organization SCARS in Harrison County. I know over in Huntington, they’ve got COMPASS, which is similar. How vital is it right now that the state’s plans for getting a statewide program to help first responders with their mental health be implemented?

Oliveto: Next to funding, it should be next on their list. We’re losing first responders by the hundreds. Without any funding, we’re not going to keep our squads alive. Without any funding, we can’t address the mental health issue. Funding’s got to be number one on the agenda. Then number two is our mental health. I think a big initiative for the state to do is figure out how to have an EMS worker recertify every two years or every four years, part of that needs to be some kind of a mental health check. It should be no different than getting your yearly checkup at your doctor’s office, to make sure you’re okay and at an organizational level, to make sure that there are resources in place to help mitigate mental health struggles within the community of the first responders.