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First Responder Advocates Urge Focus on Mental Health

"With police officers, we want you to be Andy Griffith, Chuck Norris and a therapist — all at once and then we want you to make a decision within one-1,000th of a second that'll impact whether someone lives or dies. That's a lot to ask of a human being."

Three police officers standing in a circle on a sidewalk speaking to a fourth person who has their back to the camera.
Garden Grove Cpl. Luis Ramirez responds to a call along with the Be Well team on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022. Crisis Intervention Specialists Victor Reyes and Victoria Tran offer mental-health support, services and follow up. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Mindy Schauer/TNS
(TNS) - Drugs and alcohol washed away Sean Riley's 20-year career in law enforcement in 2005.

Chronic injuries and untreated, lingering memories from a shooting crime scene made him a slave to substance abuse until he was indicted for "doctor shopping" in California.

The former Kirkland, Washington, detective said that he makes no excuses for it — "I knew I had a problem and was more concerned with keeping my badge," he said — but that it's another story entirely when it comes to the expectations society places on the profession.

"With police officers, we want you to be Andy Griffith, Chuck Norris and a therapist — all at once," Riley said, "and then we want you to make a decision within one-1,000th of a second that'll impact whether someone lives or dies. That's a lot to ask of a human being."

Riley founded the hotline Safe Call Now in 2008 to help prevent a new generation of struggling first responders from slipping through the cracks.

The national crisis line, which offers confidentiality to protect people's careers, is among a growing number of resources available to police, firefighters and others dealing with the "traumatic" realities of the front lines.

But for a number of deep-rooted reasons, it often isn't easy for emergency responders to reach out, Riley and fellow treatment and support advocates said.

The region has seen tragic proof of that, even among those who've worked to battle the drug epidemic.

'Human beings, too'

Two local police officers have overdosed on drug evidence within the past seven years.

Then- Johnstown police officer William Slisz was given a combined three years in jail and probation in 2017 after being revived with the opioid overdose-reversing medication Narcan inside downtown Johnstown's Public Safety Building.

Slisz told a judge in 2017 that post-traumatic stress disorder from his years in the military likely contributed to his spiral into addiction.

West Hills Regional Police Department Sgt. Michael Beblar succumbed to a drug overdose on June 13, with a follow-up investigation indicating that he was abusing drugs stolen from his department's evidence storage area, investigators have said.

Cambria County District Attorney Gregory Neugebauer said that it may never be clear for how long or why Beblar was abusing drugs — but that he hid his problem, rather than reach out for help.

The circumstances of Beblar's death will make it difficult for prosecutors to press forward with many of his cases — and could damage public trust in local law enforcement, potentially making it harder for the region's "good, dedicated" and professional officers to do their jobs, Neugebauer said.

But Beblar's overdose also shows the community that no one is immune from substance abuse, the district attorney said.

"This highlights the fact that police officers are human beings, too," Neugebauer said. "We encourage anyone suffering, be it police officers, mechanics, homemakers ... anyone going through mental health issues, to seek help before things get worse."

'Don't have to suffer'

High-profile overdoses are tragic reminders that there's no "textbook type" of person who becomes dependent on drugs or alcohol, Cambria County Drug Coalition Executive Director Natalie Kauffman said.

Kauffman and Riley spoke in separate interviews last week with The Tribune- Democrat, prior to details being released about Beblar's fatal overdose.

But both spoke about the fallout from trauma, stress and other personal struggles — and how unresolved issues can send people spiraling into depression, substance-use disorder and related mental health problems.

Getting help may be more difficult for men because, for generations, society has taught them to suffer silently, Kauffman said.

"Men are taught to be strong, toughen that upper lip and pull themselves up by their bootstraps — that it's OK not to be OK," Kauffman said, "but they don't have to suffer."

Riley said he recognizes that his own scars were self-inflicted. But he also understands that he didn't have the coping skills to make better choices, and he spiraled further into drug addiction to protect his secret.

"For me, it was, 'I can't tell anyone about this because I could lose my job or a promotion — my livelihood,' " Riley said.

'Best time to call'

Safe Call Now staffs its hotline with current and former first responders, most of whom have faced their own battles with mental health and substance use and lived to tell about it, Riley said.

"You're going to be talking to someone who understands what you're dealing with because chances are they've been through something similar," he said.

To Riley, it isn't just the high-stress, sometimes traumatic reality of serving on the front lines that can lead police officers, firefighters and corrections officers to turn to alcohol abuse, depression, drugs or suicide. It's also the stresses of life that they bring with them before they even start training to protect and serve.

His message: Now is the best time to ask for help — ideally before problems develop into dangerous situations and substance use spirals out of control.

That means picking up the phone early, he said.

If on-the-job stresses have led to a pattern of sleepless nights, it's time to call, Riley said.

"If it's causing you to fall behind a week on daily reports ... or causing problems at home, that's the best time to call — before little problems turn into big ones," he said. "I'd rather listen all day long to people who just handled a bad call on the job and need to talk about it than the 2 a.m. call from an officer with a gun to their own head because their problem caught up with them and they are losing their job."

'Experiencing stress'

The reality is that, on the front lines, there will always be violent crashes, high-speed pursuits and frightening moments — "We're never going to change the things we're going to see," Riley said.

The key is how people deal with those experiences, he said.

Kauffman said that it's important for everyone to recognize they aren't alone in their struggle.

"Every one of us walking on this planet in 2023 is experiencing stress," she said. "The collective trauma of COVID-19 highlighted that."

What people must realize, she said, is that problems can build up over a lifetime of challenges — a high-stress job, military PTSD or difficult childhood experiences — and that people can only take so much.

Self-medicating through drugs and alcohol might seem like a stress-reliever now, but that is an approach that will eventually create more problems, Kauffman said.

To Kauffman, the longstanding "Don't do drugs" message needs to be replaced with three more words: "Ask for help."

Given the reality that so many people have ignored the "Don't" message, the challenge is convincing them to do something about it, she said. That requires normalizing the idea of embracing counseling and mental health support.

The Cambria County Drug and Alcohol Program is taking steps to start early to make that happen. Funds from court settlements with opioid companies are being used to add counselors at every Cambria County high school for teens to turn to before problems grow.

The hope is that those students will be better prepared to face struggles — and be more open to seeking support to address challenges later as adults, Kauffman said.

Riley, who now lives in West Virginia, has taken a similar approach through his other organization, Responder Health.

He said that Responder Health partners with law enforcement agencies, district attorneys' offices, fire departments and other organizations to provide the education, resources and support needed to help manage challenges.

Treatment must be personalized because every person and every brain is different, Riley said.

He said his goal is to change the system by making the mental health conversation part of the initial training process for first responders before they put on a badge, step into an ambulance or spent their first day patrolling a prison.

"We shouldn't be waiting for someone to destroy their family or lose their job or overdose to start addressing the problem," Riley said. "Why not start inoculating them at the police academy level so they have (the tools) they need to get and stay healthy?"

Once that happens, there'll be a ripple effect, he said — lower on-the-job medical costs, drops in use-of-force complaints and healthier families at home.

"We need to change our way of thinking," Riley said. "When someone's on an elevator going down to rock bottom, there's nothing wrong with getting off on the second floor. We've got to help them do that."


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