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Pinellas invests in the mental health of its heroes

Mark Parker

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Tampa Bay philanthropist Tom Pepin, former CEO of Pepin Distributing company and founder of the Pepin Family Foundation, announced Wednesday he is committing $100,000 to HEROES. Screengrab.

In light of studies showing nearly 30% of first responders develop behavioral and mental health issues due to job-related stress, Pinellas County leaders have launched the Mental Health for Heroes Foundation.

According to the foundation’s website, while there are many related programs for the general public, few are specifically designed to meet the needs of first responders and their families. Nationwide, less than 5% of those agencies offer suicide prevention or mental health wellness programs.

The program, known as HEROES, was formally announced Wednesday. Commissioner Janet Long, chair of its board of directors, said it is the first of its kind in the region. She brings a unique perspective to her role as both her sons were combat veterans – serving the country in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively – before starting careers in law enforcement.

“So, I know firsthand the struggles that these folks live on a daily basis,” Long told the Catalyst. “Because over and over again, almost every single day, they see some of the worst in humanity.

“And you don’t have to be a genius to realize that a steady drip of that kind of stress is going to eventually cause someone to have some real mental or emotional problems – and they have nowhere to go.”

Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long serves as chair of the board of directors. Photo provided.

Long said she and Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri started the nonprofit organization as a pilot program with little funding, which despite the support of several local organizations, is still an issue. The two were unsure if there was even a need, added Long, but the demand for service quickly grew. Now the fear is accommodating everyone seeking help.

“There’s an adage that people don’t care what you know until they know you care,” said Gualtieri at the meeting announcing the program’s launch. “And that could not be truer when it comes to law enforcement officers and first responders.”

The program is open to all first responders and immediate family members throughout Pinellas, regardless of the agency. The foundation helps them recover from grief and trauma by paying for holistic, tailored counseling and mental health services.

The current goal is to provide 250 hours of related care per month.

Long said many first responders have “Type A personalities,” which can enhance the perceived stigma surrounding seeking help for mental health issues.

“And they don’t want people to think they’re weak,” she added. “They’re not weak – they’re just human.”

First responders, noted Long, often spend their day enduring extraordinary sights and circumstances before returning home and attempting to be caring, affectionate spouses and parents. Despite the images and thoughts still running through their minds.

Police officers, explained Long, must also endure the growing population of people that disparage law enforcement. She called that “demoralizing” and said “nine out of 10” put on their uniform and hit the streets each morning intending to better their communities and keep residents safe.

“And they have nowhere to go – because we look at these people as our heroes,” said Long. “They’re the ‘big guy’ that comes along to save the day. But who’s looking out for them?”

Tampa Bay philanthropist Tom Pepin, former CEO of Pepin Distributing company and founder of the Pepin Family Foundation, announced Wednesday he is committing $100,000 to HEROES. In addition, the Tampa Bay Rays, Duke Energy Florida, Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, Bayfront Health, Vetted Security Solutions and the Vinik Family Foundation are among the community partners financially supporting the HEROES program.

“There’s an adage that people don’t care what you know until they know you care,” said Gualtieri at the meeting.

Long said the community support “tells me we’re on the right path.” She relayed her hope to not only accommodate the demand in Pinellas County but to expand the program into Pasco and Hillsborough Counties.

HEROES is in “the final stages of jumping through the hoops” for a $500,000 federal grant, said Long, which is another step towards sustainability. However, she said that currently, program organizers must wait for reimbursements to cover expenditures.

At the meeting, Pepin relayed that he learned about the program just a week ago but jumped at the chance to help those that dedicate their lives to helping others.

“It is vital that we, as a community, look after those that look after us,” he said. “That’s why I’m challenging the bay area business community to match my contribution. Together, we can ensure no first responder of their family member goes without the mental health services they need to stay on the job or support their loved ones.”

According to an accompanying release, 171 first responders took their own lives last year – including at least four Florida officers. For more information or to contribute to Mental Health for Heroes, visit the website here.

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