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His friend took his life. Now, this firefighter hopes to build a safe place for first responders

Posted at 6:16 PM, Nov 07, 2022

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. -- The fire that lit inside a Chesterfield Firefighter two years ago launched a mission to tackle the stigma surrounding mental health among first responders who accomplish some of the most stressful and emotional work of any profession on a daily basis.

Back in 2020, a close friend of Lt. Kenny Mitchell, who was also a firefighter, took his own life. While attending a memorial gathering for his friend, Mitchell jotted down a refrain he heard from so many first responders that day.

“This [expletive] keeps happening because there’s nobody to talk to, there’s nobody to talk to, there’s nobody to talk to. I look out here and I think, there’s everybody to talk to!” Mitchell said to a crowd of people at the Independence Golf Club Sunday afternoon. “Operating inside the yellow tape is difficult, outside of the yellow tape is where we have most of our problems.”

Sunday marked the first event for Operation Yellow Tape, which Mitchell founded last year. The organization is working to connect first responders and their families with others who also serve to show that mental health struggles are normal and need to be talked about.

His friend took his life. Now, this firefighter hopes to build a safe place for first responders

“You're touching the pain, you're touching sadness, you're touching things you want to shove away, but you can only shove the dragon in the box so long until it comes out. And when it comes out, it comes out with hypervigilance, it comes out with substance abuse, it comes out with divorce, it comes out with you making terrible decisions, it comes out with depression. Now, the dragon is all those things in our life that tear us to pieces,” Mitchell said.

Often over his 20-year career, Mitchell said calls or situations would lead to mental health struggles that he would suppress, an instinct he said he’s overcome. Part of the mission of Operation Yellow Tape is to demonstrate that sharing personal struggles can help others just by hearing they are not alone.

“Something you've gone through, something you might say, you’re telling your story, your hard truth: I may walk away and go, ‘wow, that's one heck of a story and he got through it, so can I.’ So, telling your story can be someone survival guide,” he continued.

Operation Yellow Tape is partnering with others who share their passion for this mission. Debbie Jones, a firefighter and clinical therapist, and her clinical partner Saulo Ortiz is working with Mitchell.

Jones and Ortiz said many first responders put up barriers to seeking help because they feel there is a stigma against it in those circles.

“I always use the f-word, and that’s feelings,” Jones said. “Are you okay? Yeah, I'm good. I'm good. I'm good. I mean, but we're not. We’re good in that we can continue to put one foot in front, the other, but that will end.”

“When getting help isn't seen as a weakness anymore. And that's seen as a strength. Maybe that'll break the line that everybody needs to start getting the help they need. But we got to do something more than just admitting we need help; we've got to take the first step towards getting help.”

Jones and Ortiz said finding more ways to identify therapists who understand the world of a first responder is critical. They work with Meridian Psychotherapy Services out of Virginia Beach, but Ortiz said help is available all over the Commonwealth.

Mitchell designed Sunday’s event as a casual way for first responders to connect and chat while hitting balls at the driving range or playing a short par three. A first responder from as far away as Chicago traveled to take part after connecting with Mitchell on Instagram, an example of why Mitchell hopes the fire inside him can spread far and wide in the coming months and years.

“I want there to be no turnout gear; I want it to be humans talking about pain and depression and knowing it's okay to come forward. You can talk about this, and you can get through it. You can end the stigma, and you can feel good again,” Mitchell said.

You can connect directly with Mitchell via his Instagram account or on the Operation Yellow Tape website.

Jones said she works with first reconsiders throughout Virginia and works to meet with them within 48 to 72 hours of them contacting her. You can do so at 757-460-4655 or by clicking here.

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