Durham treatment program among finalists to receive grant to help first responders dealing with PTSD

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- A group of current and former first responders are trying to rally community support to treat those who are hurting inside.

Firstline Responders, a faith-based treatment program in Durham for professionals struggling with post-traumatic stress, is a finalist for a $25,000 grant from State Farm Insurance.


Jim Starlin, who leads Firstline's courses in Durham, is proposing a Mobile Recovery Program that features a "multi-functional RV" to provide firefighters, police officers and EMS personnel therapeutic offerings either at the very site of a major response or at the first responder's home.

"The individuals have to feel secure and safe and trust the person they're dealing with in order to relax and allow that therapy to work," Starlin told the ABC11 I-Team. "Gas is expensive and I've had several individuals they couldn't come to our courses because they couldn't afford to get there."

The Firstline Mobile Recovery Program is among 200 finalists for the State Farm grant (there were more than 4000 entries). An online vote is underway now through August 23. People can vote up to 10 times a day -- all on one cause or spread among several -- and the 40 causes earning the highest number of votes will win the grant.

Report: 37 percent of First Responders affected by post-traumatic stress

In an earlier ABC11 report, the I-Team revealed data showing police officers and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. Specifically, researchers found there were at least 103 firefighter suicides and 140 police officer suicides in 2017, versus 93 firefighters and 129 police officers losing their lives on the job.

Chris Dragotta, a paramedic for an ambulance service in the Triangle, laments that it took years before he learned the coping skills to deal with the heavy emotional toll of his job.

"My anxiety manifested as anger and usually the ones I love the most caught the brunt of it unfortunately," Dragotta said. "After 21 years, there are still some calls that get to me, still get a little emotional about."

Dragotta did attend a Firstline course, but he couldn't continue treatment because of the stress of travel. He's now among the leading advocates with Starlin for the Mobile Recovery Program.

"(Post-traumatic stress) is something you need to be able to hit head on," he said. "It's an issue and not a problem."

Other resources available

The American Psychiatric Association lists the federal Disaster Distress Helpline as another resource for first responders, who can call (800) 985-5990 or text "TalkWithUs" to 66746. It is a national hotline of behavioral health experts who provide year-round, free and confidential disaster crisis counseling. The Fire Fighters Behavioral Health Alliance also has a variety of resources designed specifically to help first responders.

The PTSD Foundation of America also offers a First Responders PTSD Assessment for those who may want to learn more about the symptoms they may be experiencing.
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