HUNTINGTON — The city of Huntington is a winner of the 2018 U.S. Mayor’s Challenge, receiving $1 million to provide in-house mental health services to first responders on the front lines of the opioid epidemic.

Huntington is one of nine winners named Monday by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg of Bloomberg Philanthropies. The nationwide competition encouraged city leaders to propose “bold, inventive” ideas to confront their city’s toughest problems, providing finalists with funds for a six-month implementation phase.

Huntington’s proposal includes having wellness coordinators engage with first responders and develop training to improve mental health, attitudes toward substance use disorder and interactions with overdose victims. The goal is to combat “compassion fatigue,” which are feelings of depleted empathy in the face of overwhelming overdose calls.

Bloomberg made the announcement of winners this weekend in Detroit at CityLab 2018, a summit of mayors and urban experts from around the world. Mayor Steve Williams and City Manager Cathy Burns are in attendance at the invitation-only summit.

Williams said he is thrilled to have the city’s efforts recognized on the national stage.

“The Mayor’s Challenge is coming in and acknowledging that what we are doing is setting a standard for the rest of the nation to follow,” he said. “I don’t want to sound cocky about this, but it’s an affirmation of everything we’ve been hearing consistently for the past four years.”

Fire Chief Jan Rader has been invited to speak with city leaders across the country, and members of Marshall University’s Department of Addiction Studies have been consulted on ways to address the opioid epidemic head on, Williams said.

The epidemic exposed the painful lack of mental health services for first responders, whose mental well-being often took a backseat to the people they were saving.

“They are the ones that saved everybody, and they are having to do it day in and day out,” Williams said. “They experienced trauma of overdoses day in and day out and experienced the trauma of death and families being split apart.”

That’s why Huntington leaders knew it was important to bring first responders to the table to design self-care and training approaches addressing the traumas they face. The city gave first responders access to tools promoting healthy behavioral changes and designed stress-relieving activities such as yoga, discounted getaways, family cooking instructions and pottery classes.

According to the proposal, more than 30 first responders have texted or met with the wellness coordinator to discuss overcoming compassion fatigue and learning about available mental health resources. At least seven first responders sought referrals for potentially life-saving treatments.

“Under the leadership of Mayor Williams, Huntington identified providing support to first responders as a crucial component in combating the opioid epidemic,” said James Anderson, lead of Bloomberg Philanthropies Government Innovation. “We were inspired by the ambition, potential for impact, and transferability of their idea.”

Williams said Huntington has come full circle in its response to the opioid epidemic, having realized arresting the chronologically addicted is useless without also providing treatment options. The city is now focused on taking care of its first responders, too.

“They desperately needed help because these are individuals, just by virtue of their personalities,…aren’t going to ask for help,” he said. “They are the personality that goes running into burning buildings while everyone else is running away.”

This is the city’s second recognition from Bloomberg Philanthropies, having being named one of 10 finalists in the Cities of Service Engaged Cities Awards. Huntington was given distinction for efforts to improve the overall health of residents through activities and greater access to nutritious foods.

Travis Crum is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He may be reached by phone at 304-526-2801.

Source: The Associated Press