Cody Barto sat in his living room recliner with a beer in one hand and a gun in the other asking himself “How can I put an end to it?”
As his self-described demons of depression and alcoholism battled for control, Barto nearly became one of more than 200 police officers who committed suicide in 2019. Instead, his battle toward recovery led him to start a support group for first responders in Williamsport.
No one to turn to
To an outside observer, Barto had it all – a loving family, a four-bedroom house, nine acres of land, two cars, and a respected career as a deputy sheriff.
But hidden beneath, the veteran law enforcement officer struggled with depression, alcoholism, and a diagnosed bi-polar disorder.
“Thank God I didn’t go through with what my plan was, but I also didn’t feel I had anyone else to turn to,” Barto said. “I can’t really explain it to somebody who hasn’t been there … I can’t make them know what that feeling is.”
Barto’s story is all too similar to many law enforcement officers and other first responders. Raised in Montgomery, Pa., Barto became a sheriff’s deputy more than four years ago.
As his consumption of alcohol grew, his work life suffered.
“It happened quick,” Barto said.
In the span of two years, he was written up for 34 infractions at work. He would often arrive late and show up drunk to work. His days were full of frustration.
“If I had had access to a support group … I don’t know if I wouldn’t have had to go to rehab, and I don’t think as many people would have known about it,” Barto said.
‘Law enforcement health crisis’
Across the country, 228 police officers died from suicide in 2019 – 90% of them were male.
One in four officers contemplate suicide and statistics show that smaller departments have a higher suicide rate than the county as a whole, according to the National Association for Mental Health.
Sgt. Charles Lowe, of the St. Louis Police Department, was ambushed on the job in July 2015. Lowe was shot during the ambush but was saved by his bulletproof vest.
As is normally the case, he was given an immediate critical incident evaluation with a clinician, but little else was done for his mental and emotional wellbeing.
As Lowe realized he had few mental health options, he began to find other officers in the same situation.
“It’s a national problem – almost an epidemic if you will – almost a law enforcement health crisis,” Lowe said.
When Lowe began confiding in other officers who had similar experiences, he found that the trauma became easier to deal with.
“We start talking about some of the emotional things we’ve been going through and we kind of help each other,” he said.
In 2017, Lowe found Project Hurt, a long-term peer support group that provides a place for law enforcement professionals to discuss their struggles with trauma, and have access to resources for further help.
The key, Lowe said, is providing long-term support, not simply one initial debriefing.
“They don’t train us how to get mental help,” Lowe said. “I’m not a doctor; I’m a police officer.”
Sense of belonging
Barto’s friends and co-workers had been telling him to stop drinking for a long time, but to no avail.
“Telling an alcoholic not to drink is like telling a 2-year-old not to pick their nose,” Barto said. “For me, it was impossible.”
Soon he lost his job as a deputy sheriff and continued to spiral out of control. Eventually he decided to check himself into rehab.
Barto, who spent his career dealing with individuals with substance abuse, never expected to walk into rehab and sit down with some of the very people he had arrested, now sharing a common struggle with addiction.
“Those same people who I was embarrassed to be seen by are some of my best friends,” Barto said. “For me it was a humbling experience and I’m glad I went through it.”
Recovery started to become a reality when Barto found others to talk to who understood his specific situation. Peer support groups, where he could share his struggles and listen to other first responders who dealt with similar issues, were key to recovery.
Opening a local chapter
Intent on helping others get the support he found so valuable, Barto reached out to Lowe for advice on starting a support group in the Northcentral Pennsylvania region. Lowe asked Barto if he would start a Williamsport chapter of Project Hurt, to which he said yes.
“These guys were complete strangers to me, but I found such a strong brotherhood with them,” Barto said. “When I left (rehab) I thought, ‘I need to recreate that for others.’”
After a few months of planning, and bringing on a few other first responders in the area, the Williamsport chapter of Project Hurt held its first meeting on the first Thursday in November. The group has met at 7 p.m. in the UPMC Susquehanna cafeteria each first Thursday since then.
The first sessions were slow, but Lowe said that’s common. Building an atmosphere of trust among first responders is tough.
“It’s a slow trickle,” Lowe said. “When they are ready, they will come and talk.”
Barto hopes the group will grow over time, adding that even if only a few show up, it will be worth it.
Cracking a hard exterior
Breaking into the culture of bravado among law enforcement is one of the biggest challenges, Barto and Lowe agree.
“It’s still the club of issues that no one wants to talk about,” Lowe said.
After a 2017 shooting incident at Sheetz near Linden, Barto, who participated in the high-speed pursuit and final shootout that resulted in the suspect shooting himself, a short critical incident debriefing was the only resource offered to those involved.
Most were willing to shuffle the experience off to an exciting evening full of high adrenaline with an unfortunate outcome.
Even Barto said he was happy to say everything was fine. It wouldn’t be until much later that flashbacks to the incident would start to present themselves.
“Looking back now, I wish I would have spoke my true feelings,” Barto said.
Often, the response to a traumatic situation involves a short briefing and then a round of drinks afterward, Lowe said.
You are often expected to show “nothing but strength,” Barto added, and showing weakness can be a hard step to take.
“Once you turn that corner and admit that you don’t have it all together, people tend to really lift you up and have your back, or they just turn their backs on you,” he said.
That alone makes it really hard for someone to come forward, Barto said. If they don’t think the support will be there, they won’t seek it.
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