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New App Connects First Responders To Immediate Mental Help

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – COVID-19 is a pressure-cooker for the thousands of first responders in Utah and it’s taken a toll on their mental health. Experts hope a new app will make it easier for those workers to get help.

When you’re a born helper, it’s hard to know where to turn when you’re hurting. Nurse Alisha Barker goes to a park near her Salt Lake City home to heal.

“When I walk through this park and hear the river, or watch the branches sway in the wind or hear the leaves in the wind, it just keeps me in the present moment,” said Barker, who has worked in the intensive care unit at University Hospital for 12 years.

Standing in the hospital hallway wearing her powered air-purifying respirator, Barker tried not to cry. She was only a couple of hours into a 12-hour shift when a patient she’d gotten to know well took a turn for the worse.

“We just had to transfer a patient out of the COVID-19 ICU, down to the medical ICU where he could have visitors,” she said. “We’re withdrawing life support.”

Barker treats the sickest of the sick, and on this day, she was the charge nurse in the COVID-19 ICU. She gets attached to patients and mourns each loss.

“He was zooming with his family and they knew what was going on,” Barker said. “They were heartbroken and they were all crying and telling him how much they loved him, and he was trying to be strong for them.”

Then she experiences frustration off shift when people don’t take needed precautions to stop the spread.

“It’s extremely maddening,” Barker said. She’s seen a community shift toward front-line workers: from cheers during the early days of COVID-19, to now being avoided.

“I just saw them all take a step back away from me,” Barker said, remembering a recent experience where she felt excluded. “I understand, but it hurts.”

Officer Kyle Hunt with the Central Utah Correctional Facility has been a first responder for 10 years. “I was diagnosed with PTSD,” said Hunt, who lives with his wife in Gunnison. “I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety.”

Hunt has also felt the weight of on-the-job trauma. “Those kinds of things are the ghosts that follow us home,” he said.

“In our culture hero also means strong, silent, doesn’t complain, doesn’t have problems, and so we’re really trying to break that stigma, said Denia-Marie Ollerton, SafeUT clinical supervisor at University of Utah Health.

Experts hope the new Frontline SafeUT app from the University of Utah Health Huntsman Mental Health Institute will help.

Health care providers, law enforcement, firefighters and EMS can get help anytime, day or night, from therapists with specialized training.

“It’s answered by masters-level clinicians, so social workers, mental health counselors,” Ollerton said.

They can help with a myriad of mental health concerns.

“Anything from relationship issues, to work issues, to suicidal thoughts,” she said.

It’s a step in the right direction, according to Hunt, who started a life coaching business called 4F Motivation to try to help others through challenges.

“Just talking about it, getting it off your chest is a huge help for your mental health,” Hunt said. “Especially somebody that can give you the direction that you’re looking for.” Helping the helpers, like Hunt and Barker, destress and recharge.

“This is where I come to let all of that go,” said Barker, sitting in her car in the parking lot of the park she loves. “I will just sit here and just cry.”

While the COVID-19 ICU isn’t as packed as it was just months before, she knows it’s still going to take a long time to recover.

“It’s going to take myself and my colleagues years to heal after what we’ve all experienced,” Barker said.

At the end of her 12-hour shift, exhausted, Barker drove to that little park to feel the feelings she couldn’t really experience during her shift because she had to be strong.

After a while, in the darkness, she said into the camera of her smartphone, “(I’m) ready for another day tomorrow.”

The Frontline SafeUT app is free and available to first responders. You can find it at your app store.

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