First Responders, Second Chances

Police officer approaching a vehicle

Today, Joseph Bradley is a doctor who treats first responders and veterans struggling with substance abuse.

Three decades ago, he was a first responder himself in northern California. In fact, in 1989 he was recognized as one of the Golden State's officers of the year. Among other things, he'd saved the life of an infant using CPR—a case, he says, of simply being in the right place at the right time.

"Anyone would have done the same if they'd been there," he says.At any rate, Bradley, now 53, knows life-and-death situations. And he knows what the people he helps today are dealing with.

"If you go in and handle an infant death, that's pretty darn traumatic," he says. "If you're a police officer investigating it or a firefighter or a paramedic or an ER nurse or a surgeon—whoever you are, it's traumatic."

Now, "I can sit with someone who's trying to explain their feelings but pauses or trails off, and they don't need to say any more," he says. "I know what they're trying to say already."

Bradley is director of the Chronic Pain and Chemical Dependency program at Solutions Recovery in Las Vegas. Why the drastic career change?

He says an injury helped end his police career in the early 1990s, but he'd also developed doubts about whether he was making the best contribution he could. He felt that while putting some people in jail was a good thing, he saw too many cases where people needed treatment, not incarceration.

"There were cases where we'd take people away from their families and they'd just come out of prison using [drugs] again," Bradley says. "I didn't feel I was part of the solution any more. I just wanted to be in the helping business."

Overcoming the Stigma

Bradley's working in the right place. In 2016, Solutions Recovery was acquired by American Addiction Centers (AAC), a group of more than 30 substance-abuse treatment facilities across the country. Their priorities matched up nicely with his.

In 2014, AAC launched its First Responder Lifeline program, aimed at helping a broad group of people whose professions—dispatchers, current and former military, law enforcement, firefighters, correctional officers, emergency medical personnel—carry unique stresses that can incite or worsen substance abuse. The specialized program currently is operating in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., as well as Las Vegas, with plans to expand into several other communities.

The people behind the program know their stuff. Its centerpiece is a curriculum developed by police psychologists, therapists and a team of current and former first responders, combining both clinical expertise and street-level experience.

"When we can, we also tend to hire therapists who have first responder experience either themselves or as spouses," says David Marlon, AAC's regional vice president in Nevada. "They bring a unique perspective to the job."

Part of that perspective means recognizing the deep shame and stigma first responders with substance-abuse issues tend to feel. They've been through trauma and they think they should be able to handle it. But it doesn't work that way.

"We don't treat this as a moral failing, but as a disease," Marlon says. "Our approach is, don't be mad at people facing addiction. Get them help. Judging them and increasing their shame doesn't help anything."

During 90 days in the facility—a standard detox period—patients' brains naturally rewrite their pathways, readjusting to the absence of the chemicals on which they'd become dependent. At the same time, therapists educate them on biochemistry, helping them see their reactions to trauma are physiological, not a sign of weakness or poor character.

"We help them to understand that their feelings are a normal reaction to the trauma," Bradley says. "We completely remove the shame from it. We let them know that they're not abnormal. It's their environment that's abnormal. That's the first step toward helping them create a new normal."

'You Are Safe with Us'

To benefit from First Responder Lifeline and similar programs offered by other organizations, those who need the help—and their supervisors—need to know the programs exist. They also need some encouragement to use the programs.

That's what people like Sonny Silva do. As an AAC treatment consultant, the retired Massachusetts corrections sergeant speaks to employees of the State Department of Corrections and County Jails, including supervisors, peer counselors and unions. "I tell them, 'If there's a problem, you need to come forward,' " he says. " 'You need to trust someone. You are safe with us.' "

Silva does more than preach the message. A former peer counselor, he knows his audience. And he has personal stories to tell—of his own struggles with substance abuse (he's 26 years sober), and those of his sister, Elaine Silva Costa, a former police officer who died from her addiction.

"My role is to use our stories to tell people they need help, they can get help and they can live a good life substance-free," Silva says. "I let them know they're not alone."

Good Results

Not everyone receives the message. But among those who do, Silva says, there are rewarding results.

"Once you start the process, you're going to find out there are more people like you than you could have imagined," he says. "Once people see there are others like them, they start focusing on healing their problem instead of hiding it."

The message is starting to get through. Since the First Responder Lifeline started in 2014, AAC has seen more than 1,300 first responders and more than 500 veterans go through the program. They're also seeing evidence that it's working.

In follow-up studies, AAC finds that 63 percent of all its clients stay substance-free 12 months after completing treatment, one of the stronger success rates for rehab programs. Among those who go through the first-responder program, however, it's even better.

"We see 85 percent of our first-responder program clients staying clean and sober for the first year," Marlon says. "That's a fantastic result."

The reasons for the success rate, Marlon says, can be found both in the program itself and in the people who are fighting their addiction.

"It's one thing to get a 25-year-old who's been selling drugs to stay clean and sober," Marlon says. "Then we have to help him make a resumé and start a life. But a first responder has a rewarding, meaningful career.

"Part of the reason they do better is that they have more to go back to."

For More Information:

To learn more about first responders and substance abuse, visit https://bit.ly/2LKeW1B.

Originally published in the August 2018 issue of Citizen magazine.

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