When the ‘Couch Approach’ Doesn’t Work for Everyone

AT&T Blog Team
May 31, 2023
Public Safety

When the ‘Couch Approach’ Doesn’t Work for Everyone

As a social worker for the St. Joseph County Police Department, Dayna Baxter spent a lot of time with both victims of crimes and officers who responded to very troubling cases.

Through these interactions, she learned that while “formal” support, such as counseling, support groups, and substance misuse treatment, are helpful for first responders, “informal” support also makes an important impact.

“If someone in law enforcement is having mental health challenges, I’m not going to say, ‘come in and lay on my couch,’” Baxter said. “Instead, my approach is to build relationships with the officers by taking an interest in their lives, reducing their job-related stress, providing training on challenging populations, and making referrals to mental health resources if the need arises.”

Simply, Baxter encouraged her colleagues to come to her when they are struggling; come to her with frustrating cases involving domestic or sexual violence, mental health crises, substance use disorders or juvenile issues, so they can work together on a plan of action.

While utilizing these more informal tools, Baxter also worked behind the scenes at the sheriff’s office to form the Crisis Services Unit and add professional staff trained in mental health interventions.  And she continued to educate herself about first responders’ real-life experiences through ride-alongs and by researching what other Indiana communities – like Bloomington – were doing to address public safety’s mental health and well-being.

Dayna eventually took what she learned in St. Joe County over to the Elkhart Police Department, where she now serves as the social work program coordinator. She continues to encourage officers to seek her out for help, while the entire Elkhart PD also pursues wellness initiatives.

“Recently, our department responded to a suicidal juvenile at school,” Baxter shared. “An officer went out to the school, of course, but what came next is even more important.

“That officer, my colleague and I, worked with the family to develop a treatment plan for the juvenile,” she said. “This kind of follow-up – something that makes you feel like you are part of the solution – can help with the frustration and burnout that often plagues first responders.”

Given Baxter’s passion for caring for the men and women who serve our communities, it’s no surprise she jumped at the chance to bring a 1st Responder Conferences event to Michiana during Mental Health Awareness Month.

She was on hand May 15th and 16th, as 100 officers, deputies, firefighters, chaplains, military veterans, dispatchers, and social workers like her participated in 2 days of mental health and wellness training in South Bend – very near where she teaches at Saint Mary’s College.

Supported by FirstNet, Built with AT&T, the event offered workshops in managing stress, the unbreakable bond between mind and body, and many personal stories about seeking therapy and communicating with your spouse about your job. There was even an outdoor yoga session.

Baxter told us there’s no doubt the event helped her community take another step toward a goal that she and the conference organizers share: pushing past traditional silence and bringing first responder wellness to our everyday heroes.