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Coffee shop for emergency responders promotes conversations about mental health

The café in the Adams County Fire Rescue Training Center is available to any first responder who wants free coffee and conversation.

ADAMS COUNTY, Colo. — A nonprofit organization has started a first-of-its-kind café for first-responders, meant to provide a space for men and women to support one another between shifts.

“It’s hard to get big, tough, strong people to talk about the things that they don’t want to talk about,” said Building Warriors founder and Denver firefighter Kelli Gilchrist. “It turns into a place where they feel safe enough that they can open up and share the things that might be bothering them.”

About a year ago, Gilchrist came up with the concept for the café, which is currently housed inside the Adams County Fire Rescue Training Center.

Multiple times a week, first-responders from any department can come to the café for a free cup of coffee, made by a volunteer barista (often a firefighter), to find comradery and a place to vent.

“We’re trying to do this intentionally,” Gilchrist said. “Talk about this stuff while you’re still in your head.”

It has become a space for people like Adams County firefighter and paramedic Charlie Koyle to unwind.

“It’s an option for us to take work and leave it at work,” Koyle said. “We come here and pivot towards home. The cool thing about the shop is that you’re not reclining on a couch. Nobody’s here to ask you, ‘How does that make you feel?’ It’s just a place that you can have coffee with a bunch of the people you work with or a bunch of the people you know and just kind of decompress.”

These are the kinds of conversations that experts think are important to begin the process of seeking help if someone needs it, with the bigger goal of eliminating the stigma around mental health and first responders.

The U.S. Firefighters Association estimates 29% of firefighters abuse alcohol compared to about seven percent of the general population.

Emergency Medical Service workers report suicidal thoughts at a rate 10 times the national average, according to the Journal of Emergency Services.

“If we were to run a call, and it hit us hard, what are we supposed to do for the next 47 hours of our shift? We have to be able to move onto the next call. We have to be able to pack up after a bad call and just keep going,” Koyle said. “It’s important to understand that when you put this wall up, it’s there unless you do something about it. There’s no way to start breaking it down.”

Koyle said he believes this café is a step in the right direction: “It’s going to your friends and having them console you or having them help you through it.”

To learn more about the café or donate to the cause, visit buildingwarriors.org.

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