2 former police officers advocate for those on the force with mental health issues

CHARLOTTE — Two former police officers are reaching out to help others as many first responders struggle with mental health during the pandemic.

Former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department Officer Korey Townsend said after a few years, the stress and burden of being on the force took a toll.

[WSOC SECTION: Mental Health Resources]

“Oftentimes, I would drink,” Townsend told Channel 9. "I started drinking. I think a lot of officers do it. I can’t speak for everyone, but it’s like a coping mechanism.”

Townsend said while working crime scenes full of conflict and trauma, some could feel isolated.

He sought help after his mother noticed a change in him and after a relative died by suicide.

“That’s what I’m learning in therapy,” Townsend said. “Stuff that I housed when I was a cop. I’m still holding on to some of those things, and it’s messed up my relationships, and I’m trying to repair those.”

Former Salisbury Police Department Officer Kareem Puranda said he can relate.

“No one wants to be considered weak in a masculine culture, such as law enforcement. So, therefore, they stay silent and, as a result, they suffer,” said Puranda, who is currently a licensed professional counselor.

A study by the nonprofit Blue H.E.L.P found that 228 police officers died by suicide in 2019, which is nearly twice as many from two years ago.

That number is more than officers who died in the line of duty.

Puranda said that some officers turn to alcohol or the emotional toll can manifest in other ways, such as acts of excessive or lethal force on the job.

“I have been advocating for counseling to be incorporated into law enforcement training throughout a law enforcement officer’s career and also into retirement,” Puranda said.

He said more police departments are encouraging officers to seek help. But some officers might worry that by doing that, it could jeopardize their job or opportunities for promotion.

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“If they don’t feel safe going through chain of command, through supervisors, because of law enforcement culture that stigmatizes mental illness -- seek resources through 1-800 numbers. There’s a ton of them,” he said.

Townsend said he is in counseling now. If he had he done it sooner, he would have stayed in law enforcement longer.

“I respect and salute all first responders and law enforcement, but when you have a job like that, you definitely have to take care of yourselves,” Townsend said.

He compares therapy as a coach for the mind to a personal trainer as a coach for the body.

“It’s nothing wrong with getting help,” he told Channel 9.

Townsend later added, “But the main thing is it’s OK with not being OK.”