COLONIE, N.Y. (NEWS10) — “It’s OK not to be OK”. That’s the message from the New York State Sheriff’s Association as it rolls out a new mental health awareness program.

First responders are trained to help people on their worst days. But, what about helping themselves when it is their mental health on the line? According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 1 in 3 first responders experience post traumatic stress. But not all seek help.

“It’s a culture of I go to work. I put my boots on. I put my belt and vest on and I go out and I help people. Then, I take it off and don’t talk about it,” says Livingston County Sheriff and President of the New York State Sheriffs Association Thomas Dougherty. “That is traditionally how most cops are. Those long-term storages of trauma sit and weigh and your bucket can only hold so many rocks.” 

While also fighting crime, NYSSA is stepping up its efforts to fight the stigma surrounding mental health for the 58 sheriffs’ offices in New York State. Over the next few weeks, those sheriffs’ offices will have access to a new mental health and wellness program through a partnership with AT&T First Net.

The program will include crisis and trauma training; PTSD awareness; suicide prevention and a peer-to-peer hotline which can be utilized internally or with a department in another county.

The program, according to Sheriff Dougherty, is not just exclusive to those on patrol. “Think about being on a 911 call on a fatal fire where the person is yelling and screaming for help and ultimately, that dispatcher is on with them for 15 minutes and ultimately that person couldn’t be rescued and how that sits and being so helpless on the other line,” he says.

Last year, according to NYSSA, 177 first responders across the country committed suicide. Over half, around 77 percent, worked in law enforcement.

Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple says first responder mental health needs to be addressed early and often before it begins to build up. When Apple first because sheriff in 2011, he says his department faced several suicides among its members.

“It hits home hard as the executive of the agency because you wonder, ‘could we have stopped this? What is it going to take to stop it?’ Police officers, corrections officers, firefighters, we’re not really good at expressing our feelings and sooner or later it comes to a breaking point,” Sheriff Apple explains.