First Responders take mental health first aid class

PENHOOK, Va. (WDBJ) - Jonathan Smith's entire perspective changed last year after a tragedy.

"I lost my best friend of 12 years father's day weekend," Jonathan Smith, Founder of Putting a Dent in Mental Health, said.

Smith and Robbie Dent were volunteer firefighters together and went on family vacations together--until Robbie took his own life.

Robbie's death is what led Smith to look at suicide rates for first responders and mental health illnesses.

"Doing the research, it shows that first responders suicide rate is 10 times greater than the average citizen," Smith said.

So Smith started a mental health program and named it for his friend -- Putting a Dent in Mental Health. As part of his program, he's sponsored a Mental Health First Aid for First Responders class at Cool Branch Volunteer Rescue Squad.

"We are delivering information to the participants about signs and symptoms of depression, suicide, anxiety, substance use, PTSD and psychosis, and we're trying to give them tools for how to engage when somebody might be experiencing those things," J.T. Clark, Faculty for teaching Mental Health First Aid for Fire and EMS, said.

They're teaching attendees from different departments to look for certain signs: withdrawal from family and activities, excessive sleeping, or not sleeping enough, among others.

"We just never know what we're going to come up upon or up against, and I think if we recognize the signs that we may save a life, even our own," Donnie Williams, a class participant and Chief of Cool Branch Volunteer Rescue Squad, said.

"As a child growing up, most people see first responders as heroes or unstoppable, and the younger generation that come around think that if they're seen weak or have something wrong with a mental illness or something that their unfit for the job, so that creates that stigma and I think once we break that stigma or lower the stigma we'll have a better success rate and be able to lower the numbers," Smith said

Smith hopes no one has to lose another friend like Robbie Dent.