Mental health is a conversation that has been launched into the national spotlight. Yet for some sections of society, it's still considered taboo.
"One day, when I was at work in the early 90s," former North Carolina Highway Patrol Officer Teia Poulin said. "I went to go stop a car and it so happened that he was suicidal. Obviously, I didn't know that when I pulled him over. At the end of the stop, he had killed himself."
That was just one incident. Ultimately Poulin, a Navy Veteran who served in Desert Storm, spent decades wrestling the demons of her mind like so many other first responders.
It wasn't until a few years ago that she found peace.
Now, Poulin works with NC LEAP, an organization that works to unite first responders with others who have had similar experiences. This an effort to bring that same peace to what may be otherwise a mind riddled with turbulent storms.
NC LEAP is "focused on turning vulnerability into strength through education, training, peer support, and pastoral care," according to its website.
A key focus includes understanding Critical Incident Stress which includes:
- Line of Duty shootings
- Getting shot or seriously injured on the job
- High-speed pursuits that end in tragedy
- Events that bring prolonged and critical media attention
"If we could help first responders understand that it's a normal reaction to an abnormal situation, that's the first step," Poulin said.
Poulin said that last year alone, 155 officers died by their own hand. That's more than the number of officers who died in the line of duty (147).
"We're killing ourselves more than we are getting killed on the job, and we've got to do something about that," Poulin said. "No one sees themselves that way. Nobody sees themselves on the first day on the job that 'One day I'm going to kill myself.'"
NC LEAP is not the only organization focused on first responder mental health.
Dena Ali is a captain with the Raleigh Fire Department. She was also key in bringing North Carolina First Responder Peer Support to life, serving as the director. Ali says that often information on suicide in the first responder community is not easy to come by as it's not properly reported or discussed.
It's within peer support training that first responders learn how they can serve their fellow brothers and sisters on the force.
"Mental health disorders...suicide. It's not strictly because of the calls we run and the bad things we see," Ali said. "It's because of the stigma that's been historically placed on mental health and the fact that we as first responders feel this responsibility to the people we serve, to our peers when we come to work. We think that we have to be perfect. We think that we cannot be flawed, we cannot show any sort of weakness so we mask things that are bothering us."
"It's OK to not be OK and you're not alone," Ali said is the motto of her organization.
In the peer support conferences first responders learn to share their worries, stresses and need for support.
For Poulin, finding support and talking about her mental woes was freeing. Now, remaining true to her servant's heart, she is focused on getting her masters in professional counseling to better serve the first responder community.
Early signs that a first responder is undergoing a mental crisis include isolation, not sleeping and withdrawal.
NC LEAP offers two three-day conferences annually in November and April. First responders who want to sign up can email Info@NC-LEAP.org. The organization offers various classes throughout North Carolina; it is a non-profit and runs off donations.