‘There when we’re needed’: Free counseling available for first responders

CHARLOTTE — We’re in the middle of National Police Week, which honors officers and their sacrifices to the job. It coincides with Mental Health Awareness Month.

First responders always rush to answer the call for help, but as Channel 9′s Anthony Kustura explains, those responders are often the last to find help for themselves.

Ribbons and signs of appreciation decorate the entrance of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department headquarters in Uptown. But despite the praise, the stress of being a police officer can take its toll.

From protests demanding police reform to everyday violence in Charlotte, Officer Daniel Redford knows that pressure well. This week marks 17 years since he joined CMPD. He’s now the president of the Fraternal Order of Police and advocates for officers like him.

“We’re there when we’re needed,” Redford said.

A handful of calls he’s been on still play out in his mind: The death of a newborn baby, a plane crash, and a man who took his own life right in front of Redford.

“I can see it as clear as day, as though it just happened,” he told Kustura.

Because of traumatic experiences, experts say police officers and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. Katie Boone is a therapist with Presbyterian Psychological Services, or Presby Psych.

“These are groups of people who are working and present for some of the most horrible things that go on in our community,” Boone said.

The nonprofit works with agencies like CMPD to provide counseling at no cost for first responders. She says many of her first responder clients wrestle with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and in some cases, addiction.

Redford realized he had developed unhealthy habits to cope with the stress of his job.

“I got to a point where -- I personally recognized where I was drinking more than I wanted to,” he said.

He got help, but he believes for many of his colleagues, the hardest part is believing their own struggles won’t be used against them.

“Go seek treatment without going there and being judged to a point where their career is in jeopardy,” Redford said.

For Redford, the reason he sought treatment was clear; his family. He wanted to make sure that when he’s off the clock, he can be the best father and husband, and when he’s in uniform, he’s serving his community with a clear mind and level head. He hopes that for all officers and said they just have to take the first step.

“The hardest part is over and then hopefully focus on treatment, and getting yourself the treatment that you need,” Redford said.

Because it offers the counseling for free to first responders, Presby Psych raises money to pay for its services. That fundraising happens at events like the second annual Embrace Mental Health Breakfast being held Thursday at 7:30 a.m. at Caldwell Presbyterian Church in Uptown.

Therapists shared with Kustura specific ways we can all identify problems that therapy can help. A few things to look out for are:

  • Nightmares or other difficulty with falling or staying asleep, including avoiding sleep
  • Increased irritability; not enjoying or looking forward to activities you used to enjoy
  • Avoiding time with people, even friends and family
  • Increased alcohol use
  • Struggling to control worries
  • Difficulty relaxing.

(WATCH BELOW: Resource shortage puts more police on scene of mental health crises, workers say)