LAWRENCE, Kan. — May is mental health awareness month. The sheriff in Douglas County, Kansas knows a healthy deputy, means a healthy community.
Studies show, 6% of the general population experience PTSD. That number is much higher among first responders at 20%.
Sheriff Jay Armbrister takes his own trauma to encourage his employees to seek help.
The sheriff’s office has taken their Peer Support Program from six members to now 18.
This voluntary group of people, both uniformed and civilians, stepped forward to be trained on peer support.
Corrections Officer Alison Brown is one of the people who makes themselves available to talk with fellow first responders about trauma on the job.
“Sometimes it’s just as therapeutic for me because they’re going thru the same things I do,” Brown said.
Armbrister has experience trauma through the lens of a law enforcement officers — witnessing horrific tragedies that continued to pile up.
“I didn’t realize how deeply those were weighing on me,” Armbrister said.
He said the Boardwalk Apartment fire in Lawrence still sticks with him. It happened in 2005, but he remembers the flames like it was yesterday.
“It was the biggest thing I had ever seen in my life,” Armbrister said. “There were people jumping out of windows, and a lady with a broken back and we’re trying to help them, and this place is just engulfed in flames.”
The card that broke the house was when Armbrister had to tell his childhood best friend his son was dead.
“I realized that I didn’t really care if I lived or died anymore,” Armbrister admitted, “and my wife, at one point, finally said I’m just afraid I’m going to come home some day and you’re not going to be here.”
He started seeing a therapist twice a week, someone who understands law enforcement.
“We’re all really bonded because of this line of work,” Brown said.
Each peer mentor is required to go through a 40-hour, weeklong trauma training.
Brown believes their program saves lives.
Since August, she’s already helped a handful of people with the job.
“It can screw the way you look at the world. and sometimes you just have to bring yourself back and say, some of those things are not normal and you have to talk about them,” Brown said. “And sometimes it’s just getting together with a coworker after work, and you just have to laugh about them.”
Since Armbrister became sheriff last year, he’s added to the program — offering free therapy to all 186 employees.
“And what I do is I buy two hours a week out of her schedule,” Armbrister said, “and we just leave it open for sheriff’s office employees and they can just call, schedule an appointment.”
The sheriff said their peers are open to helping anyone in law enforcement.
If you’re looking for help, call the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office at (785) 841-0007.