City seeks mental health and wellness app for first responders

·3 min read

Feb. 20—Scranton wants to make mental health and wellness services more accessible for city police and fire personnel.

A city request for proposals seeks a vendor for a mental health-focused mobile app available around the clock, with evidence-based screening tools for assessments and emergency contact numbers for crisis situations.

"First responders are at high risk for disorders that arise from repeated exposures to stress and trauma," the RFP says, listing post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, substance abuse and depression as examples. "Although mental health services are available, it is not easy for the first responders to access them; some of the common reasons being lack of awareness, stigma, long working hours, long wait times for appointments and negative experiences with providers."

Mayor Paige Gebhardt Cognetti expressed a similar sentiment.

"Mental health is important for all of our employees and, in a public-safety realm, our police and fire especially deal with ... any number of really heavy, really tragic scenes and situations," Cognetti said. "So what we're doing is looking for additional solutions."

While employees covered by the city's health insurance plans can already seek mental and behavioral health counseling, Cognetti noted the relatively recent proliferation of online, "more self-selective services" offered via mobile apps.

"Not all behavioral health treatment comes in the form any more of going to an appointment ... in-person," she said. "There's a lot of different ways that people can either add to that type of service or utilize a service that is a little bit more tailored to them."

"So we're seeking ... a solution out there for the city, starting with our public safety teams in police and fire," Cognetti said. "If it works, we'd look to expand that to make it available to Code Enforcement, (the Department of Public Works) and the rest of the whole city employment universe."

The RFP's scope of services states the app or solution shall have parameters for PTSD, anxiety, stress and depression at a minimum, as well as parameters promoting and facilitating healthy behaviors and mental wellness. It also must be bound by appropriate Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act regulations and "follow industry best practices to protect anonymity where appropriate."

Citing other sources, Kaiser Permanente reported in 2020 that 85% of first responders have experienced symptoms related to mental health conditions and that depression and PTSD are up to five times more common in first responders.

"Our members on the fire side see people on their worst day," Fire Chief John Judge said. "That's just part of their job, so anything we can do to assist with them being able to process those elements of the job is important."

Apps of the sort the city seeks often enable peer-to-peer support and offer decompression tools, breathing exercises and other practices in the interest of health and wellness, Police Chief Thomas Carroll said.

"We spend a lot of time making decisions in tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving situations, and a healthy officer is going to make better decisions under stress," he said.

The deadline for vendors to submit sealed proposals is 10 a.m. March 9.

Contact the writer: jhorvath@timesshamrock.com; 570-348-9141; @jhorvathTT on Twitter.