Local college launches program to help first responders facing mental health setbacks
PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. (Tampa Bay Now) - During Mental Health Awareness month, local law enforcement officers are working alongside education officials to help support each other. St. Petersburg College just launched a new program aimed at helping first responders facing mental health setbacks.
"It's the sights, it's the smells, it's the stuff you hear," said Jonathan Vasquez, President of the Suncoast Police Benevolent Association. For the last 15 years, officer Jonathan Vazquez has policed the streets of Pinellas County and says he knows all too well what the impact of fighting crime looks like, day after day.
"Resuscitating a minor who fell in a pool that doesn't make it and dies or separating a child from his parents because of a child abuse situation. We're involved with officers' day-to-day lives, their struggles and any issues that come up and we've noticed more than anything that mental health has taken that priority."
After taking a closer look at the trauma's causing mental health issues, the PBA and St. Petersburg college have teamed up to support local first responders.
"They're going through a divorce, their wife is cheating on them, lack of sleep because of having to cover shifts," he said. "We want that to be brought out to the forefront to deal with it in the appropriate manner, so we don't have officers deciding to lean on alcohol or drug abuse."
A war veteran and K-9 officer, Vazquez says the Applied Mental Health Advanced Technical Certificate offers critical skills to first responders who face mental health issues, both personally and among the citizens they serve. The certificate can be earned on its own or as part of the college's new Bachelor's Degree In Human Services.
"I come from the military where mental health is an obvious issue that we have. This job is 24/7, 365, day in and day out," Vazquez explained. "The whole goal of this is for it to be a police officer initiative to receive this mental health education and provide mental health services for police officers. We're officers, but we're humans."
With the fall term now open for registration, Vazquez is hoping for a class of about twenty-five for a successful start. He wanted to give a special thank you to Pinellas County Councilmember Kathleen Peters who put officer Vazquez in touch with St. Petersburg College to get the program started.
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