PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — Pinellas County is launching a new foundation to help our heroes to help themselves. The Mental Health for Heroes Foundation is aimed at getting first responders mental healthcare in an anonymous and stigma-free setting.
The official launch of the program comes the same year that two lives were lost too soon. In January, law enforcement leaders lost two of their own in a murder-suicide.
While vacationing in Saint Augustine, detectives said Hillsborough County Deputy Abigail Bieber was shot and killed by her boyfriend, Hillsborough County Detective Daniel Leyden. Leyden later took his own life.
The crime still haunts several law enforcement leaders, as Bieber’s brothers also work as police officers.
“To say that’s a tragic death is an understatement,” Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Wednesday.
And yet, despite 30% of first responders facing behavioral health issues like depression, aggressive behavior and PTSD, nationwide studies show few are reaching out for help.
“There’s a stigma that these strong people, these first responders, are weak if they seek help because first responders are those who help others, not those who seek help,” Sheriff Gualtieri explained.
Last year alone, across the United States, 171 first responders took their own lives. In 2020, that number was even higher at 186. And yet, just 5% of agencies have specifically tailored mental health programs, according to the organization Blue H.E.L.P.
“They sometimes work and involve themselves in the worst of our humanity. Yet they still get up, put on their uniforms, badges and guns, and head out to be there for us when we are in need,” Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long added, who serves on the board of directors for the new Mental Health for Heroes Foundation.
Long’s two sons served in the military, and she said both had trouble getting back into civilian life after they returned from serving.
“It was a struggle for our family to know how to help them,” she said. “Our son Logan was not 20 years old when he was deployed into Iraq, and when we invaded Iraq he was on the front line. Our other son Paul was deployed into Afghanistan and flew nearly 3,000 hours in combat.”
The new Mental Health for Heroes Foundation was created specifically to help Pinellas County deputies, police officers, firefighters, EMTs and other first responders.
One thing that’s different about the program is that many of the mental health counselors have served as first responders themselves.
Unlike some other programs, the Mental Health for Heroes Foundation doesn’t require first responders to go through their HR department, insurance or other avenues. They also don’t need to notify anyone that they’re getting help with their mental health.
Dr. Brandy Benson of Tampa Bay Psychology Associates is helping to launch the new foundation. She previously served as a psychologist in a corrections institution.
“The job can weigh on someone heavily and it doesn’t always stop when they clock out, so the benefits for the general public is they’re going to get healthier first responders,” Benson said.
So far, 170 first responders have signed up to get mental health help. Fifty of those are employees at the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.
“That speaks volumes in and of itself. There’s a need and we need to fulfill that need,” Sheriff Gualtieri added.
The foundation’s goal is to provide an average of 250 hours of mental health services per month.
Some of the financing for the new foundation is coming from private businesses which have established more than $500,000 in seed money. Those companies include Pepin Family Foundation, the Tampa Bay Rays, Duke Energy, Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, Bayfront Health, Vetted Security Solutions, the Vinik Family Foundation and Richard O. Jacobson and Frank Chivas Families.