Local nonprofit supports first responder mental health

Published: May. 31, 2023 at 9:49 AM PDT
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RENO, Nev. (KOLO) - May is Mental Health Awareness month and the Nevada Peer Support Network is expanding its reach to help first responders.

“It’s not a culture that allows themselves to really feel,” said therapist Ryan Simpson. “It’s more about helping others and not letting other people help them.”

He is a lead clinician with the nonprofit, which is now housed in a bigger building offering workshops and preemptive training on how to deal with the traumatic experiences they encounter while on duty.

“At some point you’ve got to let it out or your body stores it,” continued Simpson. “Your body keeps score. Esentially that’s when it turns into other stuff. Anxiety, depression.”

The Network encourages first responders to reach out to each other and look for signs that something may be wrong, and hopefully get them to talk about it.

“I had to do that myself and that was probably one of the hardest things I ever had to do, was to admit that I wasn’t okay,” admitted Simpson.

Which wasn’t easy for someone known as a fighter. Simpson was a two-time national champion at Nevada and a former professional boxer. He then went into law enforcement, spending a decade with the Sparks Police Department. He saw his share of tragedies and was even winged during an officer-involved shooting, when a shirt button was literally shot off his shoulder.

“About two years later, my body, I tried to push it down as much as I could, but my body couldn’t take it anymore. Hands started trembling and things like that,” explained Simpson.

So, he got help, then got certified to help others suffering from a variety of anxiety issues, like PTSD. His experiences give him credibility with other first responders and can make it easier for them to open up and talk about what they go through.

“It’s really about saying, hey you’re not broken, you’re not weak. We actually bring you in and take care of you and let them know that you’ve got their back,” added Simpson. “That means more to somebody who’s struggling than anything.”

And it’s important to break through the “tough guy”stigma, where you put your head down and keep moving forward regardless of what’s building up inside.

“When somebody’s experiencing PTSD, it’s all of those survival mechanisms, the amygdala, the hippocampus in your head that actually grow and become more sensitive,” explained Simpson. “So really, what’s happening is not weakness it’s actually strength. You’re growing your survival instincts when you have this stuff.”

First responders have higher rates of divorce, substance abuse and suicide. So, getting them to open up and talk can literally save lives.

“The hyper-vigilant rollercoaster of just constantly being up and down, and having to get yourself elevated way up here, and then you realize the equal opposite response is way down here. So you go home and you veg out and you don’t interact with your family,” added Simpson. “And that’s really when you start seeing things go down the drain essentially.”

You can find out more about the Nevada Peer Support Network’s mission at www.nnpsn.com