Rescue the rescuer
Stephen is committed to helping people in high-stress jobs confront their mental health problems and reach out for help. As a former paramedic and a man who has struggled with addiction, he brings a powerful and important perspective to his work.
I became an outspoken voice for first responder mental health when I started my podcast ‘Rescue the Rescuer.’ At the time, I was one of the only ones around talking about it, and there was a lot of backlash. People didn’t want me talking about these things. But I’m just trying to turn the volume up on the microphone a little bit louder because I know a lot of people are hurting.
Stephen was one of those people. Over his 15-year career as a paramedic, he saw tragedy every day, including on September 11, 2001, when he was one of the many first responders called to Lower Manhattan following the collapse of the Twin Towers.
Like many paramedics, police officers, military personnel, firefighters, and others on the front lines in times of trouble, Stephen took on sometimes unbearable stress and pain. And, like many others, he used substances to cope. He overdosed multiple times. His struggles with addiction led to the end of his marriage and caused him to lose his paramedic license.
From about 2008 until 2016, I was in detox inpatient, partial hospitalization, and intensive outpatient programs. Through all those experiences, nobody ever asked me what I wanted or who I was. They basically boiled me down to a diagnosis: substance use disorder.
Stephen wanted to get better, but he was frustrated. He knew that no ready-made treatment approach would address his illness. He also knew that there were many others like him, others who worked in high-stress professions who were suffering and either would not admit they had a problem or were not getting the help they really needed.
I’m not blaming anybody, but it seems like people are just put in the system, and they’re not asked what they want or what they need. For me, it’s a matter of speaking the language, being able to talk the lingo—understanding what makes a person in my situation different.
In time, Stephen found an approach that worked for him. With the help of medication and therapy, he started to turn his life around.
I slowly started getting my life together, and I started addressing things one by one. For somebody who’s been using for a long time, you can’t just stop the thing that’s automatic, that’s ingrained in you. It takes time.
With his addiction under control, Stephen dedicated his life to helping others who were facing similar struggles.
He launched a blog and now has two podcasts on Mental Health News Radio Network, “Rescue the Rescuer” and “Psychonautica.” He started giving public talks, telling his story and connecting with first responders, law enforcement officers, firefighters, and others on the front lines. He also took a job working with newly released prisoners on a one-on-one basis to help support them in enriching their lives and achieving goals that they identify for themselves.
For a lot of people I talk to, there’s just an attitude that you’re supposed to separate yourself from what’s going on, to not be human. That leads to a lot of problems. I understand that, and those are the kinds of things I talk about.
Stephen hopes that being open about his mental health issues and his struggles in recovery will spur others in high-stress jobs to recognize the signs of mental illness and reach out for help. He thinks attitudes about mental health are changing, and he’s encouraged by what he sees.
It’s like that Sam Cooke song ‘A Change Is Gonna Come.’ There’s no question things are changing. I’m excited.