My Arena visits Montana State Prison to talk about mental health and PST

DEAR LODGE — First responders can experience traumatic events on a daily basis, which is…

My Arena visits Montana State Prison to talk about mental health and PST

DEAR LODGE — First responders can experience traumatic events on a daily basis, which is why one man has made it his mission to spread awareness.

Travis Gribble’s organization, My Arena, is gaining steam speaking to law enforcement and first responder agencies across the state.

He visited the Montana State Prison (MSP) on Wednesday, May 31, 2023, to talk about PTSD symptoms and prevention with the employees there.

Gribble was invited by the warden of the prison, Jim Salmonsen, after an employee of the Critical Incident Stress Management Team recommended My Arena.

“After researching it, and speaking with him, it was like, oh, this is a heck of an opportunity to show our staff that we care, that it’s okay. We could tear down that stigma that seeing a counselor is a bad thing. It’s not,” Salmonsen says.

Gribble came to the prison in April for the first time and plans to come back in August. Salmonsen says before the presentation was even over, his staff were coming up to him and thanking him for inviting My Arena to the prison.

Jim Salmonsen

Claire Peterson/MTN News

Montana State Prison Warden Jim Salmonsen has not participated in Gribble’s presentation himself, but he looks forward to doing it this summer. He says his staff is his family, and he wants to ensure they are healthy and happy.

The presentation ran four hours, and detailed Gribble’s two-decade-long career in law enforcement and SWAT. He did not hold anything back, sharing the ugly truth of the traumatic scenes he experienced.

Gribble was joined by Licensed Social Worker Gypsy Ray who helps Gribble and others like him treat their PTSD symptoms.

“So I am the clinical perspective to his presentation on PTSD and treatment for first responders,” Ray says. “To help validate the information that he’s talking about, but also make a personal connection with our audience, so they know who it is they might come and see.”

Ray says she hopes to relate to the participants and show them therapists are regular people, but more than that, she wants to provide them with contact information of therapists that specialize in PTSD.

“Most therapists in our area have, you know, one to three month waiting lists and we just can’t do that. If somebody’s ready for help, we need to be able to receive them right away,” she says. “So I’ve set aside spots so that I can keep seeing first responders specifically.”

Gypsy Ray

Claire Peterson/MTN News

Licensed Social Worker Gypsy Ray hopes she can encourage anyone struggling with their mental health to ask for help.

PTSD, as Ray explained, can affect anyone.

“We think about PTSD as the really big stuff, which is of course also trauma– when you go to war, when there’s a major hurricane, or 9/11— things like that are all very important,” she says. “But so are first responders. They’re the ones who experience this every day, multiple times a day, and we call that complex trauma, so it builds up over time. And we don’t know when the brain’s capacity has maxed out and they need help”

While Gribble spoke of his own experience with triggers and unhealthy coping mechanisms, Ray spoke through specific symptoms of PTSD and what to look out for.

“I want to tell you about the symptoms, so you can kind of just do a little check, on yourself, your buddy, somebody you know,” Ray said during the presentation. “The rule of thumb is, if it’s been three days, and you’re still thinking about it, reexperiencing it, having nightmares, having flashbacks, things like that, it’s a problem.”

Ray also walked through the different types of treatments there are for PTSD, including Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, which is a technique to treat PTSD that is growing in popularity.

During his time as a SWAT team leader in Mesa, Arizona, Gribble was dealing with stressful incidents on a daily basis, and while his day-to-day may look different than a corrections officer’s day-to-day, Salmonsen says it’s still easy to relate.

“A lot of what Travis is speaking about is very relatable to some of the work that we do here. Some of the things that we see, some of the things that we have to do. It’s very relatable, and I think staff can really put themselves in the position that Travis has been in,” he says. “Some of the stories and some of the things that our officers have seen, human beings shouldn’t see that.”

Despite understanding the importance of Gribble’s words and warnings about PTSD, the prison staff admitted it can be hard to ask for help, as the culture has always pushed back against it.

“There is a lot of stigma associated with mental health,” MSP Shift Lieutenant Thomas Snowden says. “And I think a lot of times people are just afraid to open up and talk about it.”

Thomas Snowden

Claire Peterson/MTN News

Montana State Prison Shift Lieutenant Thomas Snowden has worked in corrections for almost a decade. He said he thought Gribble’s presentation was a fantastic opportunity for his staff.

The trend, according to those who have had a long history as first responders — like Gribble and Salmonsen — has always been to see mental health issues as shameful.

“When I started it was more of a, you know, you didn’t say this because you were thought of as being weak,” Salmonsen says. “And that’s not the case at all. I think you’re really rather strong when you’re asking for help like that.”

My Arena’s goal is to break down this stigma around mental health and to change the culture within these professions.

“Letting them understand that this is normal. It should be an expectation of the job, but also the treatment of it,” Ray says. “Prevention of long-term PTSD symptoms should be an expectation of the job.”

The Critical Incident Stress Management Team (CISM) at the prison already tries to help staff get through traumatic experiences, but they realize how valuable Gribble can be for their staff.

“We have all had some kind of something no matter what age you’ve gone through. It’s trauma,” CISM team member Anne Cole says. “And knowing my personal experience of losing someone to suicide that was a police officer. Travis is the person that has come forward, and our leadership has taken it on. We’ve taken it on and it’s just opening up a whole new world for all of our generations.”

Gribble is working to partner with both the prison system and law enforcement to require this presentation on mental health during new-hire training, hopefully preventing PTSD symptoms before they are out of hand.

Ray reminded folks of the mental health crisis hotline in the state, 988.

“Just the fact that if nothing else, people understand that they can call or text 988, and they will get somebody live on the other end to help them through their crisis, and then we’ll be there for the long term,” she says.


Claire Peterson

Travis Gribble has more resources for first responders on his website,

Additional information on My Arena can be found here.