Graphic by Makayla Williams. 

This story originally published online at UNC Media Hub. 

Police officer Bradley Evans drove down Highway 55 in Cary, North Carolina, but he wasn’t paying much attention to the road. He was thinking about killing himself.

He was thinking about vivid scenes of police officers being shot, parts of a video his department had shown the day before about surviving a shooting. But his thoughts of suicide had been building for a long time.

In 2010, Evans was patrolling in Monroe, North Carolina, just after midnight. He was sent to a Sunoco gas station where a young man was threatening a customer, Glenn Mitchell Bullard, with a gun. When Evans attempted to arrest Bullard, they struggled and, in self-defense, Evans shot Bullard in the thigh.

Bullard survived, but Evans was devastated. He suffered from anxiety and depression. And he needed help.

“I felt like I was alone, nobody at the time had even been through a shooting at my police department in Cary,” Bullard said. “There wasn’t even any sort or program I could get into to talk to people.”

He tried to escape by moving to a new city, by drinking too much, and pushing his family away. Nothing worked.  “I just shut down. I said things I should have never said, it was just grueling,” Evans says.

His breaking point came on Highway 55.

“As soon as my eyes opened that morning,” he said. “I was thinking about it: shootings, my shooting, I survived, I shouldn’t have survived.”

The fear and flashbacks grew more powerful as he got out of bed and went to work. His life felt more fragile than ever.

His knuckles were white from gripping the wheel in front of him, and his body shook like a flag whipping in the wind. He wanted the pain to end.

To fight off his suicidal thoughts, he pulled his gun from the holster and threw it across the front seat. It landed on the passenger floorboard. Then, he made a beeline for the district office.

“I was tired of hurting and I didn’t want to leave my little girl fatherless,” he said.

He was shaking, terrified of the repercussions of admitting he was suffering.  But he was more afraid of what would happen if he didn’t. He sat down in the chair across from his sergeant and made a plea for help.


A first responder’s day-to-day life is already stressful. When they are placed into traumatic situations that impact their mental health, the job can become unbearable. In 2021, the CDC reported that, “law enforcement officers and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.”

What is lacking in departments across the state are outlets for first responders who go through trauma to recover emotionally and return to the job. But independent groups and nonprofits are working to mitigate these holes.

Efforts to address mental health issues for first responders have slowly taken root. The state legislature has begun to address it in terms of compensation and recruitment—filtering out those with mental health issues from obtaining a badge in the first place.

The General Assembly approved House Bill 436 in 2021. It requires officers pass a mental health screening before joining the force.

While the efforts of the North Carolina legislators are important and necessary, so is the recognition that first responders often undergo traumatic experiences that leave them psychologically damaged. But, they fear seeking help will cause them to lose their jobs.

A huge part of the problem is the stigma of admitting a problem. Officers fear appearing weak, being ostracized, or losing their jobs.

“I started reliving the shooting, thinking it could have been me, but back then I was scared to go to anybody and say ‘Hey, I am having some crazy thoughts, I need to talk to somebody;’ my fear was that they were going to say they need to take my gun and badge and that I couldn’t do this line of work anymore,” Evans says.

Many counselors and mental health professionals believe they’ve found the right formula—peer groups plus trained professionals who understand the first responder culture.

“Peer support is one thing North Carolina is doing right,” said Rick Baker, clinical director and founder of Responder Support Services. “There are a couple of different types of formal peer support utilized statewide. Having that validation and acceptance from your peers is powerful and helping impact that stigma in a positive way.”

Baker started working exclusively with first responders 10 years ago, focusing on providing cognitive behavioral therapy in Buncombe County.

“When we started doing this,” Baker said, “the stigma was a barrier to responders coming to work with us, nobody really came to talk. Slowly, it changed and folks started coming in and dipping their toe in the pool and saying that the water wasn’t that bad. So, they would come in and participate in treatment.”


In the case of Bradley Evans, his department placed him on Family and Medical Leave after he told his sergeant that he was in a dark place.

A few days later, Evans got a visit after his sergeant reached out to contacts specializing in first responder trauma. A man named Andy Gruler drove from South Carolina to Evans’s Cary home, and the two sat on the couch to talk.

“Have you ever heard of a Post Critical Incident Seminar?” Gruler asked. 

Gruler explained that a Post Critical Incident Seminar (PCIS) is designed for officers who’ve experienced trauma on duty to come together to talk, as well as work with trained clinicians and peer counselors. He suggested that Evans should come to South Carolina for the PCIS led by a nonprofit called the South Carolina Law Enforcement Assistance Program (SC-LEAP), because the next North Carolina PCIS wasn’t for several months.

“He basically said, without really saying it,” Evans recalled, “‘you’re too screwed up to wait that long.’”

Evans joined the 35 or so officers sharing their stories, while other certified peer responders observed from chairs behind them. A microphone was passed around so each person could talk as long as they needed. Over the next few days, they broke into small groups and met with clinicians and the trained peers.

“I can’t even explain it but that was the first time I felt like I wasn’t alone, the first time that I could relate to somebody else,” Evans said.

By the time the weekend was over, he knew peer support was something he wanted to be involved in for life.


 Lt. Aaron Back had a similar experience the first time he attended a PCIS in South Carolina.

In 2005, Back’s brother Benny—a police officer in Virginia—was called in because a car had hit and killed an 8-year-old girl. When he arrived on the scene, he realized the young girl was his daughter, Isabella.

That emotionally wrecked Benny. He started drinking heavily and isolating himself. When he wasn’t returning to work, Aaron Back took Benny to a PCIS in South Carolina.  

Despite his eagerness to get his brother to the PCIS, the truth was Aaron Back didn’t really believe in opening up about mental health. As a long time-officer himself, he usually pushed those feelings down. “I didn’t believe in talking with people about my issues, through my career we’ve always been taught to suppress it.”  

But, over the course of that three-day PCIS, Aaron watched his brother open up. He had people around him who could look him in the eye, honestly say they knew what he was going through, and that he would get better.

From that point on, Aaron started to help. He drove to South Carolina every few months to help SC-LEAP run their PCIS seminars as a trained peer member, because he knew the difference it could make for so many officers.

What didn’t sit well for him was the fact that others in North Carolina might not be as lucky as his brother because there wasn’t a nonprofit like SC-LEAP running PCISs there.

In 2011, along with the help of law enforcement Chaplain Danny Leonard, Back began NC-LEAP and the duo ran its first PCIS.

Now, they’re getting ready to run their 22nd event.


 There are similar peer-focused support organizations popping up across the state. The North Carolina First Responder Peer Support Team (NCFRPS) is made up of first responders trained to aid those struggling with their mental health.

Brian Campbell works in the Apex Fire Department. He struggled with mental health issues for years after the death of his brother. Despite the toll it took on Campbell, none of his coworkers had any idea he was struggling—despite how close they were.

“They would all just invite me out for a drink,” Campbell said. “We would never talk about what was going on and no one ever really offered to help me or talk about real issues. There definitely was that stigma there.”

He eventually sought out therapy and worked through things on his own. A few years later, Campbell got involved with peer support after taking a class with NCFRPS. He saw how much that type of support would have benefitted him and facilitated his journey to recovery.  He became certified as a peer supporter later that year.

“You hear from so many guys that they don’t want to go talk to a shrink, so peer support opens that door for them to actually talk to you then you are able to connect them with resources to help them,” Campbell said. 


 Consider the cost of not having these life-saving resources available. Chad Webster was a police officer for 19 years in Charlotte.

In 2020 he was on duty for many of the riots that occurred after George Floyd’s death.

“They were throwing fireworks and frozen water bottles,” Webster said. “All kinds of things were exploding around me. And I was just helpless because we were told not to do anything, to just keep pushing them back.”

In that instant the panic was so unsettling, his feelings were scrambled. Webster began laughing—almost uncontrollably.

“I didn’t understand it at the time, but for several weeks after that, I just wasn’t right,” he said. “I didn’t know what happened. I didn’t know how to process what I was going through. I kept taking vacation days and sick days. I just wasn’t ready to go back to work.”

It got to the point where Webster couldn’t come out of his bedroom for six weeks, coupled with nightmares and drinking problems.

“If you start saying you’re losing your mind, you become a liability and if your supervisor or all the way up thinks you’re crazy, then your job’s at risk. So, that’s another reason that many will suffer in silence.”

The turning point came when he was diagnosed with PTSD. “My primary care physician, my therapist, and my psychiatrist all said, ‘you can’t do this job anymore,’” he said.

Realizing he couldn’t go back to work, Webster applied for workers compensation. His request was initially denied until he got an attorney.

“My retirement wasn’t approved until 2021 after mediation with the city. So, I went six or seven months with no pay,” Webster said.

Unlike Bradley Evans, Webster didn’t attend PCISs and he didn’t even know about NC-LEAP.

At no point over the course of the year Webster struggled did he have anyone talk to him who could relate to his trauma and help him through it.

“I think having routine Mental Health Awareness class classes and training would help,” Webster said. “And I think if they had officers that had been through some sort of mental health challenge, come in and help teach those classes would be great.”


Bradley Evans still drives past the section of Highway 55 where he almost ended his life. But, today he is miles away from the destructive feelings that plagued him after his shooting

Back then, he had mostly bad days. Today, he is still serving Cary as an officer, but he is also a peer coach helping other first responders who are working to get past traumatic experiences. Evans chuckles a bit, as he mentions that he is sure his wife and daughter have some thoughts on how he could still improve.

He has mostly good days now, and on bad days he doesn’t feel alone.

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