Indiana’s only addiction treatment program for first responders sees success months after launch

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INDIANAPOLIS — National First Responders Day is recognized each year on October 28, and every day there’s a group in central Indiana working to help first responders.

“Our first responders do so much to keep us safe, to make sure that their community is well, but they don’t often take good care of themselves,” said Stephanie Anderson, CEO of Recovery Centers of America (RCA) Indianapolis.

RCA Indianapolis is the Hoosier State’s first and only inpatient and outpatient center with a substance abuse treatment program designed specifically for first responders.

“We knew that this was a need here in Indiana and there’s several of us who have careers working in corrections, working as first responders ourselves, and so when we opened this facility up we knew this was going to be one of the first specialized programs we wanted to offer,” said Anderson.

The Recovering Emergency Service Community United, or RESCU program, was launched in April at RCA Indianapolis and has already served dozens of first responders from central Indiana and beyond.

“With all of the trauma they’re exposed to day-in and day-out in their jobs, substance use and mental health disorders have a really high prevalence,” said Anderson.

“There’s no shame in what they’ve experienced, in fact what they’ve done is so honorable,” said Anderson.

According to data shared by the Addiction Center, an estimated 30% of first responders develop behavioral health conditions during their time in service, including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The publication shows these are typically associated with drug or alcohol abuse.

“For the patients that we see here, it’s really impacting their ability to function and so what they do is they choose to numb it, they use substances, most often alcohol, to move past those things, to take those things away, and it creates a whole other plethora of problems” said Anderson. “We also see a higher rate of suicides amongst first responders as a result of this. We also see a higher rate of mental health issues.”

RESCU is a confidential addiction recovery program for first responders and military members and has five locations around the United States, with one in the Midwest.

“We see a lot of fire and police and lots of recently parted military,” said Anderson.

Anderson said RESCU sees a ‘rich assortment’ of people who utilize their program, including correctional officers and EMS personnel that serve on ambulances. Some travel from other areas like Chicago, where there is an RCA facility, but no specialized program for first responders.

First responders in the RESCU program receive treatment on a separate floor, where interaction with other patients is restricted to help ensure privacy and support among the small community of first responders facing a similar journey.

“Our RESCU program on our inpatient side is just the beginning of their journey. It’s 30 days where they can come and find a really safe place,” said Anderson. “They do all of their own therapy groups, they have different meal times, so that they really have a system where they can feel safe and a comradery amongst each other to talk about things they wouldn’t normally talk about.”

The inpatient program focuses on removing substances from the system, helping to stabilize a person emotionally and set the framework for longterm recovery. In the outpatient program, first responders have the opportunity to continue their therapy process and utilize services available.

“We have an entire alumni association that is completely open for anybody to participate in and our first responders do participate in that and what we’ve found is that our first responders group has also created their own little support group outside of here,” said Anderson.

The program is helping the first responders, who are usually the first ones helping others.

“They’ve been exposed to things that the majority of us cannot even imagine every single day,” said Anderson.

Skip Ockomon is a retired Anderson firefighter and president of the Worldwide Peer Support Group. He volunteers at RCA Indianapolis every Thursday, helping talk to first responders about recovery. He’s also spent years working to overcome addiction and cope with the trauma he saw on the job.

“I was on the medic unit when I first got on, saw a lot of stabbings, shootings, death of little children,” said Ockomon. “I didn’t know how I was going to get rid of that pain, so I was drinking and taking drugs.”

Ockomon spent more than 30 years on the Anderson Fire Department and said trauma was something he didn’t know how to cope with early on in his career. After years of abusing drugs and alcohol, he said he had his final drink on February 7, 2000.

“From there on, it went well for a while.”

But several years ago, some things came into Ockomon’s life he didn’t know how to cope with, like the death of his granddaughter. He began to struggle, not with alcohol or drugs, but coping with PTSD and depression.

After completing treatment in a program on the east coast, Ockomon said he met firefighters from around the country and launched the Worldwide Peer Support Organization, working to help other firefighters around the U.S. and in England.

“I just kind of share my brokenness and where my success is, is getting help from counselors and 12-step groups,” said Ockomon. “I’m just blessed to be still here in this world and to be sober today.”

The RCA Indianapolis RESCU program is run by a first responder in recovery and Ockomon said that’s the case for some others involved in the program as well.

“It really helps out because that’s a language you don’t have to explain to somebody, they already know it, so they’re a good fit for helping the clients that come through there,” he shared.

Ockomon sponsors two first responders at the RCA Indianapolis and meets with them each week. One is a former sheriff’s deputy and the other, a former firefighter, he said.

“I’m blessed to have those two guys in my life plus a lot of other people.”

“What I like about it is I help facilitate the groups and stuff and now I go there and watch these guys and ladies grow in their spirituality and grow in their recovery and just watch them help other people, man, it’s a blessing,” he said.

Since the launch of RESCU, Anderson said the population within the program has ebbed and flowed. Right now, it has 12 beds currently devoted for first responders, with 50% occupancy.

“We tend to bounce up and then plateau,” she explained.

Anderson said she believes the pandemic impacted people’s ability to come to inpatient programs because many are afraid to take time off of work. She hopes that changes and people who feel they need the help or want to take the first step in reaching out, will do so.

“Recovery is not easy it’s a challenge and so for every beautiful story that we have, we have another story where someone continues to be challenged,” she added. “It’s scary. It’s terrifying and at the end it’s beautiful and you deserve that. You deserve that as much as anybody else, maybe more.”

Ockomon echoed that same message. His advice to fellow first responders struggling to cope with trauma or PTSD and turning to alcohol or drugs as a solution would be: “You don’t have to be tough anymore. Reach out. It’s never too late.”

“What’s really great about it [RESCU] is we really just get to see these lives that are changed as a result,” said Anderson. “We believe so strongly in recovery and that it’s possible.”

Resources

If you or someone you know is having a substance use-related emergency, dial 911.

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