Mental Health on the Frontlines Conference

Pictured here are the panelists from left to right, Terry Whittaker, Emergency Medical Technician – Lee County EMS; Christine Hodges, Lead Dispatcher – Lee County Emergency Dispatch Center; Ryan Beiner, Officer/Community Policing Coordinator – Fort Myers Police Department, Steve Hernden, Driver/Engineer – Cape Coral Fire Department; Sabrina Gorton, Nurse Manager, Adult Emergency Services – Lee Health; Dr. Dave Ondrako, Emergency Medicine Physician & Medical Director of Inpatient Addiction Medicine Services – Lee Health

By Cheryl Schlichte, BAS

The Healthy Lee, Behavioral Health Coalition, held its second annual Mental Health on the Frontlines Conference on April 6 at the Broadway Palms Dinner Theatre, where over 100 frontline workers met in a supportive environment to express their experiences with stress, anxiety, depression, and thoughts of self-harm. This unique conference offered leadership an exclusive window into their frontline workers’ world, explored the community’s resources, and discussed areas for improvement through their own employee Mental and Behavioral Health service offerings.

Dr. Nicole Navega greeted the many Fire & Rescue, EMS, corrections officers, public service officers, 911 dispatchers, healthcare employees, and leadership of these industries. She encouraged our first responder administrators and leaders to serve their employees by eliminating mental and behavioral health stigma.

That is precisely what the City of Ft. Myers Fire Chief Tracy McMillion did, as he explained from the podium. Following last year’s Mental Health on the Frontlines (MHFL) conference, the City of Ft. Myers Fire Department hired a behavioral health professional to assist its employees with their daily struggles. He explained that leaders and administrators did not have processes, pathways, or spaces like the MHFL conference to care for their people. He asked that the audience be open and vulnerable so that mental wellness can be talked about in the same manner as any other disease, mentioning weight loss and dieting as examples.

Dr. James Huysman, the Chief Compassion Officer for WellMed, an expert in developing respite services for caregivers and promoting the mind-body system to calm the mind, spoke about retraining the brain to find health and happiness. He provided resiliency tips such as breath work to stimulate the vagus nerve that tells your body it is safe. In addition, he promoted “earthing” or “grounding,” which is the direct physical contact of the human body to the surface of the earth to improve cardiovascular health and sleep, reduce pain, and promote a feeling of well-being.

Liz Smith, an attendee who is the Assistant Director of Into the Jordan Ministries, which provides human trafficking victims respite care, resources, clothing, encouragement, and education, said that the conference offered excellent tips and resources to take back to her everyday life and implement almost immediately. For example, she has utilized the breath work and musical instrument suggestions and is currently looking for a ukulele to include in her self-care. Liz also said that she related closely to one of the panelists that spoke on the need for self-care before burning out and appreciated the vulnerability of the panelist and even the audience.

Catherine Murtagh-Schaffer, PA-C at Lee Health’s Shipley Cardiothoracic Center, spoke about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and said that we need to divest ourselves of feeling that there is shame in asking for professional mental and behavioral help. If everyone felt that way about asking for help, someone with a heart attack would say they’d be mortified to call an ambulance. However, she said, as a first responder, my brain is on fire with PTSD, but I can’t seek help because I feel embarrassed. Catherine said this doesn’t make sense, and we must overcome this stigma.

Upon listening to Catherine’s presentation Margaret Williams, an attendee, realized that she had many symptoms of PTSD and realized that she had been taking care of everyone but herself. While caring for her husband and children, she recently discovered that she requires major surgery, and her friends use her as a sounding board, which she is quick to point out she doesn’t mind. As she continued to the breakout sessions, her tablemates suggested that she talk to someone, as she was visibly upset. That someone happened to be in recovery herself and suggested that Margaret go to Park Royal Hospital, which provides modern, compassionate treatment for adults and seniors suffering from mental health issues and co-occurring disorders. Margaret asked, “When,” and they said, “Right now,” Margaret said, “Ok,” and she went there immediately. Margaret said that seeking assistance at Park Royal was a direct result of attending the MHFL conference and was glad that she attended, as she now knows that she was putting a Band-Aid on a more significant health issue. She also said that the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that Lee Health offers its employees is one of their most valuable benefits and encourages others to take advantage of it. This experience has had such a positive experience on her that Margaret is now going to pursue a career in psychology because she wants to be able to help others.

Along with these powerful speakers, rounding out the conference were two breakout sessions that emphasized education for every person on the frontlines. Deborah C. Beidel, Ph.D., ABPP, who presented on Managing Stress in the Aftermath of COVID-19 and Hurricane Ian, hosted the first session. While Dr. James Huysman provided the second breakout session, Take Your Oxygen First, WellMed’s First Responder Emotional Support Response Teams “ESRT” Series.

Finishing strong, the conference had a panel of first responder and frontlines worker panelists who shared their personal experiences with attendees and answered questions. Many audience members shared their experiences, making this conference a genuinely compassionate learning event. In addition, many local resources were present at the conference, offering materials on different services offered in our region.

To explore community behavioral and mental health resources, visit and click MHFL Video Recording to view the conference.

The Centers for Progress and Excellence has a mobile crisis unit that operates 24/7, free to the public, diverting Baker Acts. The number is (844) 395-4432. In addition, for anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the national 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.


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