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Relief for first responders

It’s hard to say exactly when firefighter Dionisio Mitchell started experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder – the anger, the impulsivity, the lashing out. Maybe it was after the on-the-job vehicle rollover that could have taken his life. Or after he responded to a call and saw a two-year-old boy die after being hit by a car.

Regardless, “it all came to a point of, ‘I need to talk about it,’” says Mitchell, who has served in the Kern County Fire Department in California for 14 years. 

He found help at the Rotary House Retreat, a short-term intensive program for first responders dealing with PTSD. Supported and organized by the six Rotary clubs of Bakersfield, with crucial early support from District 5240, the twice-yearly program gives firefighters, police officers, paramedics, and other first responders the opportunity to learn and practice healthy ways of coping with the constant stresses of their jobs.

Over six days, trained mental health professionals, peers, and volunteer chaplains work with six first-responder guests on common issues such as substance abuse, anger management, anxiety, depression, and sleep problems. The program is held at a secluded ranch in Kern County. Each guest is asked to pay at least $500 of the $3,000 cost; the Rotary clubs of Bakersfield provide scholarships to cover the rest, with aid from other Rotarians, nonprofits, churches, and employee associations such as police unions.

“Our focus is on early intervention and even prevention, so people don’t ever get to that point of losing their career or losing their marriage or even thinking about suicide,” says project chair John Pryor, a member of the Rotary Club of Bakersfield West who lost his son, a police sergeant, who had PTSD, 11 years ago.

Mitchell, who went through the program in 2016, credits it with helping him manage his emotions, improve his relationships, and understand the importance of self-care. “It feels good when you have people supporting you, when you have people in your corner,” he says. 

 –Anne Ford

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