Counseling alumnus pioneers first responder peer support initiative
Lt. Matt Askea, pictured above, a three-time UA graduate (master’s degree in counseling in 2004, bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1998 and associate degree in fire protection in 1997), has founded a Peer Support Program for first responders in the city of Akron Fire Department. The program trains a selected group of first responders to observe and discuss mental health concerns among their peers as well as to serve as a bridge to mental health professional referrals when needed.
When Askea started the program in 2018, he asked Dr. Varunee Faii Sangganjanavanich, professor and director of the School of Counseling, to join the initiative. “As a UA counseling graduate, the School of Counseling is the first resource I pursued,” said Askea. I approached Faii and explained my vision to her. I was glad she jumped right on board and helped me make this happen.” Sangganjanavanich consulted and provided training on basic interview and therapeutic skills that first responder peer support members can utilize to facilitate peer conversations about mental health. “I joined Matt and his team one day to shadow them while they were on duty,” recalled Sangganjanavanich. “I went on multiple 911 calls and witnessed many incidents, including ones that did not have a happy ending. I could tell that the nature of their job affects them on a personal level. They save so many lives and are true American heroes. However, like the rest of us, our heroes sometimes need extra care to promote their mental well-being which is critical for their performance and for the safety of the public.”
As partners, the pair has joined a special taskforce established by the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services to develop Peer Support Program Best Practices for First Responders and Law Enforcement Officers across Ohio. The ultimate goal of this program is to reduce stigmas surrounding mental illness and to create a culture of openness about mental health among first responders and law enforcement personnel. “As first responders, we need support, too,” noted Askea. “We experience issues such as depression and trauma and need someone to listen and understand what we are going through. The current culture, however, is that seeking help from professionals is viewed as a sign of weakness. Having peer support would help us take an important step to get help that we need.” “Matt is a great example of UA graduates who have made positive impacts on people’s lives and have contributed to social change,” said Sangganjanavanich. “I am very proud of our counseling graduates.”