Locally, the tradition of honoring first responders is a result of the extraordinary efforts of Father Mark Bialek at St. John Catholic Church. In this photo, Father Mark officiates the October 20, 2018 Blue Mass.
Locally, the tradition of honoring first responders is a result of the extraordinary efforts of Father Mark Bialek at St. John Catholic Church. In this photo, Father Mark officiates the October 20, 2018 Blue Mass. (Kevin Dayhoff)

The fourth annual ‘Blue Mass’ was scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 12 at St. John Catholic Church. The mass is traditionally held this time of the year to honor first responders — police, firefighters, EMS providers, emergency dispatchers, correctional officers, sheriff’s deputies, and military personnel. All the folks who selflessly serve and protect in the community and run toward danger while others run away.

In a September 29 article on WJZ TV in Baltimore, journalist Max McGee provided some additional insight into the Blue Mass. In 1934, “85 years ago on September 29, nearly 1,100 police, and firefighters dressed in blue uniforms walked into St. Patrick’s Catholic Church. They did so to celebrate the first ‘Blue Mass’ Sunday…”

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Locally the tradition of honoring first responders is a result of the extraordinary efforts of Father Mark Bialek at St. John Catholic Church. When Father Mark first arrived at St. John, he immediately reached out to (me and) the firefighter and law enforcement community. His support has been steadfast at a time in which too many in the community do not hold us in high regard because it is politically fashionable to bash firefighters and police officers — unless they need us for an emergency.

Today, much of the conversation in the first responder community includes “911 abuse,” responder burnout, and what to do about the growing epidemic of first responders and military veterans who are taking their own lives in record numbers.

Bluntly, we simply must start talking about the topic of suicide in our community.

And it is not just first responders who are killing themselves. Jon Kelvey wrote an article in this publication on Sept. 10 about “World Suicide Prevention Awareness Day.” According to the article, “Suicide rates have been increasing worldwide since 1990, and in Carroll County, the number of deaths has fluctuated between 19 and 30 a year since 2012, with at least 164 suicides in total during that time, according to still-preliminary data from the Carroll County Health Department. After a peak of 30 deaths in 2014, the number dipped to 19 in 2015, but has been climbing every year since, with 26 suicides in 2018."

For first responders, “Providing a culture that supports emotional wellness and self-care for our police officers is essential, and should be a part of every police department’s policies, training and employee assistance programs. First responders are an ‘at-risk’ population regarding suicide,” wrote Westminster Police Chief Thomas Ledwell, a veteran of 27-years in law enforcement, in an email interview.

“First responders are always at the forefront of each incident or disaster, and they ensure the safety and well-being of our city,” wrote Westminster Councilwoman Ann Thomas Gilbert in an email interview. “They are, however, at great danger of being exposed to potentially traumatic situations that pose risk of harm to them or the people under their care. This constitutes a great risk for the behavioral health of first responders, putting them at risk for stress, PTSD, depression, substance use, and suicide ideation and attempts.”

Westminster Councilman Tony Chiavacci agreed. Chiavacci, an Army veteran who served as a military police officer, and is himself, the son of a career retired Maryland State Police officer, knows the challenges of the work of law enforcement all too well. “It is critically important that leadership within our first responder community continually work to create an atmosphere that removes the stigma associated with seeking psychological assistance. We have to have an environment that both encourages our first responders to ask for help as well as insuring that in doing so, their career is not damaged.”

“Asking for assistance is not cowardly but showing true bravery,” texted Rodney Morris, a retired 1st Sgt. with the Maryland State Police.

Gilbert further explained: “I believe it is one of our responsibilities as city officials to ensure that we can provide our responders with services that can assist them."

"It is critical that we come together to support … them in seeking help when needed,” said Gilbert who works as an Adult Service Case worker for the Carroll County Department of Social Services and is the secretary of the Carroll County Veterans Independence Project, a local grassroots initiative to help veterans in need.

As first responders, too many of us keep our feelings in a jar by the door. For whatever reason, contemporary American society seems to have turned a deaf ear and a blind eye to the grieving process and shoved it into a dark corner. In my capacity as a chaplain for the Westminster Fire Department and the Maryland Troopers Association Lodge 20, I often emphasize that folks who deal with death and tragedy on the job should find a friend and “keep talking about it.” God did not bring us this far to drop us on our head.

Several years ago my sister-in-law, the Rev. Dr. Sarah Babylon Dorrance, addressed the issues head-on in an article, “Grief-5 Basic Steps.” “So how do we cope? How do we survive? How do we go on living when sometimes there seems to be very little to live for?

“Here are 5 basic steps, a very good place to begin… 1. Grief is a process, it takes time…We forget that grief is not something we ‘get over’ quickly…

“2. Take time to grieve. Give yourself space and permission… 3. Tears are healthy. Use them…”

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“4. Find out how you “process” things and DO it…” Dorrance explains that some folks use pictures. Some find that writing about your grief is helpful. “Maybe you process by telling your story. Find a trusted friend or a pastor who will listen to your story. Tell it over and over again, this helps the processing… 5. Don’t leave God out of the mix…”

If you are reading this online before Saturday, October 12, please join the St. John Catholic community and the first responder community at 4:30 at 43 Monroe St., in Westminster.

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