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BCSO combats stigma, removes barriers to mental health services for first responders
JAN. 6, 2022 - Buncombe County Sheriff's Office has mental health clinicians that provide services to not just current members of the department, but retired ones, too -- and even their spouses. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

Buncombe County Sheriff Quentin Miller often talks about the 21st century policing model his department is embracing. That includes not just taking care of the community, but taking care of the officers who take care of the community.

BCSO has mental health clinicians that provide clinical and non-clinical services to not just current members of the department, but retired ones, too -- and even their spouses. The clinicians are right there, in the BCSO building. Rick Baker is one of those embedded clinicians. 

BCSO combats stigma, removes barriers to mental health services for first responders

"They're leaving here after they participate in treatment with what we call a trauma membrane around them, so they're more resilient to stuff they encounter in the communities. They're more thoughtful in their interactions with the community. They're able to put a thoughtful pause between impulse action and all that comes back to better protect our communities, protect this municipality, the agency and the individual officers," Baker said.

Asking for help

Baker said his team's strategic placement at BCSO is about removing barriers to mental health services and normalizing asking for help.

"Being onsite breaks down those barriers and removes that stigma that's been in law enforcement for generations, kind of the 'suck it up, buttercup' stigma, 'I'm not going to ask for help,'" Baker said.

Those old-school attitudes were what Cpl. Aaron Lawson grew up with.

"I had one supervisor back then say, 'Push it down with brown liquor. ' Which, you can't. But that was the mentality at the time, and that's just what we did," Lawson said.

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JAN. 6, 2022 - Buncombe County Sheriff's Office has mental health clinicians that provide services to not just current members of the department, but retired ones, too -- and even their spouses. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

Lawson spent time serving our country abroad in the military. Now, he's going on 25 years with the Buncombe County Sheriff's Office. He spent some time with BCSO as a field investigator in the criminal investigations division. Now, he's a K-9 handler for their patrol division, with his beloved K-9 Antti.

Lawson has seen a lot in his years serving our country and our community.

"Valentine's Day of 2017, I worked five OD deaths in one night, one 12-hour period," Lawson said.

He said it was hard to not take what he saw in the field home with him.

"We put our stuff on hold to help others, and that's the thing that I think some folks don't realize, is that we have stuff ourselves and sometimes it's easier for me to help someone else than to help myself," Lawson said.

"I was short fused, as far as my attitude, everything else. You start to get a thing like you're lost. Like you're on an island and nobody else around you understands a thing you're going through," Lawson said.

Finally, in 2019, Lawson decided he wanted to get off that island and sought help from Rick Baker.

"I am very proud of myself, and I will pat myself on the back and I'll forever be grateful to Rick and his firm for what they do and what they're continuing to do," Lawson said.

Baker said Lawson was the worst case of PTSD he's seen in his 21 years in this line of work. Lawson said Baker saved his life.

"He saved not only that, but my career, too, because when you let stuff build up on you like it can, it can destroy careers, it can destroy friendships, destroy your marriage," Lawson said.

Helping others

Now, Lawson is speaking up, advocating for his peers, young and experienced, to seek help.

"You got to get help. You've got to reach out to somebody," Lawson said.

Baker said it makes a huge difference when veterans or leaders in the department like Lawson openly address mental health, because it can further help defeat the stigma among law enforcement.

"We still see that, especially in some of our old school personnel who've been around and grew up in that culture many years ago, and with some of the young folks coming in who will self-impose that, so it's nice when we have more seasoned officers who are participating in the program kind of lead by example," Baker said.

JAN. 6, 2022 - Buncombe County Sheriff's Office has mental health clinicians that provide services to not just current members of the department, but retired ones, too -- and even their spouses. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

Baker said they're changing the culture there and are seeing a continued increase in members of BCSO seeking help.

In 2020, his team conducted 753 counseling sessions. In 2021, that number jumped to 824.

He hopes to see a continued increase, and he hopes the services he's providing encourage more people to join BCSO at a time when interest in law enforcement careers is declining.

"We hope that word gets out that this is how we take care of our people, this is how we do it nowadays," Baker said.

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Lawson, an old-school guy with a new outlook, hopes his story encourages others to address their mental health.

"Do not wait, because it will come to you, will destroy you mentally, physically cause you health problems and it could destroy friendships, it could destroy your marriage if you have one, relationships," Lawson said.

Lawson said he has about two years left in law enforcement until he plans to retire.

"I'll be able to go out and look back and like what I see," Lawson said. "Who knows, after I retire, I may even come back and help Rick out."

If you are a first responder in need of mental health services, you can call Responder Support Services' Emergency Services 24/7 Crisis Hotline at 828-209-8038. You can also check them out online.

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