COLORADO SPRINGS — Military veterans and first responders have encountered difficult situations that many of us will never truly understand and that was before the stress of COVID-19.
Here in Colorado Springs, at places like Garden of the Gods, military vets and first responders are joining forces to take on mental health challenges together.
"I think that during this pandemic it has definitely spiked my PTSD. I've struggled tremendously with you know the isolation and not being able to be with community and I think everybody kind of felt a little of that," said military veteran Ginger Mercer.
Mercer joined other vets and first responders for a six-day retreat in Colorado Springs hosted by Life Aid Research Institute, a groundbreaking suicide prevention program. Cycling through Garden of the Gods is just one of the activities people took part in to build comradery, peer support, and rejuvenate their minds.
"I think the most healing is when you get together and you can talk about it and then getting out and start exercising," said Mercer.
From talking through issues to literally carrying each other forward, the peer to peer support is saving lives. It came at the perfect time for combat veteran William Roy who is still hurting after losing a close friend: his service dog.
"He passed away with cancer. He was my wingman for 9 years. So, it's been tough," said Roy.
Social interaction and connecting with people who understand what he's feeling is helping Roy to move on. He encourages the public to do their part too, by showing support for first responders.
"Give them support. Give them thanks," said Roy. "They're doing a hard job that a lot of people don't want to do."
Arleen Agosto is one of those frontline workers.
"We are humans and that's what everybody needs to remember," said Agosto. "We're humans, we have feelings, we have emotions. You can't shut it off."
She's a military veteran and now an emergency room nurse. She says group outings like this help her stay mentally strong.
"What we need is a group thing so we realize that we're not isolated, we're not alone," said Agosto. "That's the key thing is you're not alone and there's more people who are struggling and going through depression. Depression is a chemical imbalance and you're not alone."
The group spent the week cycling, hiking, and even got a demo from USA Boxing.
Founder and Chairman of Life Aid Research Institute John Wordin aims to curb suicide rates for vets and first reponders while changing how we choose to look at mental health.
"So I think we need to re-evaluate how we look at it," said Wordin. "Look at it as a brain health issue, not necessarily as a mental defect."
"If you break your arm you go to the hospital to get sympathy, you get your arm fixed," said Wordin. "If your brain has an injury, you need to get your brain fixed and you shouldn't be penalized for that. There shouldn't be a stigma.
LifeAid is scheduling more retreats and peer to peer talks. Our southern Colorado vets and first responders will have plenty of opportunities to connect if they want to reach out.
"You know we've had some success because it's a place first responders can come outside the chain of command. It won't affect their job or duty status, but they can get some help getting them over those rough patches," said Wordin.
If you're a military veteran, a first responder, or have one in your life who could use peer to peer support and a nationwide network of mental health experts LifeAid has resources that might be able to help you.
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