Sheriff's deputies, first responders suffer heavy mental toll responding to mass casualty incidents

Sometimes it's the heroes that need help.

For the deputies of the Oakland County Sheriff's Office who have responded to more than one mass casualty incident in the past few years, the burden of caring for the victims and each other can be heavy.

"It wears you down because you see the toll on your people. You see the toll on the community. You visit the victims, and you see what they’re going through," said Sheriff Michael Bouchard. "It takes a toll on you."

The latest incident was in Rochester Hills when a gunman opened fire on families at a splash pad. Nine people were wounded and some remain in critical condition days after the violence.

In the wake of the shooting, Bouchard spent time during a early-week press conference talking about the mental health struggles his officers were dealing with - not just the weekend terror, but the 2021 Oxford High School shooting as well.

That's why the department offers critical response debriefs and peer-to-peer counseling.

"So we’ve got to help them after they help others," he said.

Carrie Krawiec works as a licensed marriage and family therapist at Birmingham Maple Clinic. She has spent ample time with first responders in the wake of tragedy, and worked to help them navigate the emotions they may feel afterward.

"About 80% of them have reported experiencing trauma in some form and 30% of them are having symptoms as a result of it," she said.

That includes anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Her advice is that first responders stick to routine tasks after a difficult day, like eating, working out, and having quiet time. Friends and neighbors can also play a critical role for those first on the scene.

"Maybe initially there’s nothing much to talk about. They say, ‘no, I’m good.’ But try again and try again," said Krawiec. "Maybe eventually that person really is going to take advantage of that opportunity. 

"It’s sort of like planting a seed and then waiting for it to grow."