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On the Front Lines, Mental Health Becomes a Priority

Jacksonville Journal-Courier, Ill.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed daily life as we know it, but frontline workers have not faltered in answering what is asked of them — to be first on the scene, no matter what the situation.

Jeni Sprinkle of Jacksonville is a paramedic in Menard County. Being an emergency medical technician always takes its toll, she said, but the pandemic is something altogether new.

"I think most of us are handling it as well as expected, but none of us have been through a pandemic," she said.

Protocols for an on-duty EMT have been increased, with dispatchers determining if callers have symptoms related to COVID-19 and then letting Sprinkle and her partner know if they need to wear personal protective equipment.

"Last week, I had marks on my face from wearing a mask so much," she said. "This is not the flu. This is about protecting your elders, this is about everyone's safety."

When she's off-duty, and especially knowing the virus still is spreading, Sprinkle tries her best to leave work at work, surrounding herself with immediate family and close friends.

"I just keep good people around me that are not EMS," she said with a laugh.

Illinois Firefighter Peer Support is an organization of firefighters, clinicians and religious leaders who are trained in peer support, so they can help fellow first responders cope with the challenges of the job. Since the pandemic began, the organization has seen an increase of 50% in calls from first responders and firefighters reaching out for mental health support, it said.

"This stuff is real and this is all new," Sprinkle said of the virus and how important safety is. "It's the best job I have ever had, but it's also the worst job I have ever had.

"I am really proud to say that I am a paramedic."

Sprinkle became an EMT in 2006 and worked in Springfield for two years before switching to Menard County.

"I got my feet wet over there — a lot of gang-bangers ... shootings, domestic violence," Sprinkle said of Springfield. "I even had a gun pulled on me once; it got to be a bit too much. I try to leave all that stuff at work."

There have been several times when Sprinkle has awakened in the middle of the night screaming, but she recognizes the positives of what she does.

"Some of the stuff is good ... the good ones get you through the ones you can't save," she said.

Sprinkle, who on Thursday sported a long-sleeved pink shirt and some pink hair in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness month, is one of two women on a 12-person crew in Menard County. Together, despite the stress of work, they get through the tough times.

Alan Bradish chaplain for Jacksonville Police Department, recognizes the value in talking, both with police officers and community members.

"I try to touch base with the department on a daily basis," Bradish said. "I have casual conversations, but if (they need something) deeper, I try to take the time to talk."

Bradish's role is twofold. He is there for the officers but he also is there for the community, especially when dealing with the homeless, the elderly and people with mental health issues.

"I try to take the time (spent responding to those calls) off the officers," he said. "It makes their job easier."

Bradish complimented Chief Adam Mefford for how he has provided support and training for his officers.

"Chief Mefford has put in place the help and he's really protective of his officers," Bradish said, adding that programs like Boots on the Ground help build community relations, which also reduces stress for the officers.

"Don't let the national narrative affect the work in Jacksonville," Bradish said, noting advice Mefford gives to his officers. "The climate is calm in our community, it's not like we're dealing with issues in Portland or Chicago."

South Jacksonville Police Chief Eric Hansell recently suggested that the village bring in its own nondenominational chaplain, which he believes will benefit all involved.

"I want to implement a program that benefits the community and the officers," he said. "It's a mechanism for officers to talk" if they want to do so.

Hansell's passion is to be involved with the community, he said, and he's aware of the strain put on his officers as Illinois' Region 3 returns to increased restrictions because of the high COVID-19 positivity rate.

"We opened up things and now we're rolling back," he said. "I love the community. Now it's a strain because (officers) can't be in the community."

Hansell is proud of how his department is dealing with the day-to-day stress of being first responders and how they all take care of each other, he said.

"It's a family unit in itself; we're taking care of each other," Hansell said. "I just want to help the healing."


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