CHICAGO — With the goal to raise awareness, a documentary theater group is taking its story showcase about mental health issues and first responders to the heart of the far South Side neighborhood where many members of the police and fire department live.
On Tuesday night, the Beverly Arts Center will host “First Responders,” a show about mental health issues faced by police officers and firefighters put on by Erasing The Distance, a Chicago nonprofit theater group dedicated to using the power of performance to disarm stigma, spark dialogue, educate and promote healing surrounding issues of mental health.
The issue has been in the news a lot lately, largely because the Chicago Police Department has experienced six suicides in the past eight months. Since 2011, the police department has experienced between two and four suicides a year, but the recent spate has raised eyebrows, two years after an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice warned that mental healthcare in the department was severely lacking.
After the most recent suicide March 10, Police Supt. Eddie Johnson established a task force to examine the department’s mental health services.
The show, which partly focuses on the story of police officer Brian Warner, whose struggle with PTSD is ongoing and was recently featured on the front page of the Chicago Tribune, is free to the public. The Beverly Arts Center donated the performance space and the cost of hiring Erasing The Distance was picked up by Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th), State Rep. Fran Hurley (35th District), State Rep. Kelly Burke (36th District) and State Senator Bill Cunningham (18th District). The effort to get it there was spearheaded by family physician and Beverly resident John Ross, who was invited to the showcase in November when it was playing at the Chicago Dramatists in West Town by his friend Dan O’Connor, a Chicago Police Lieutenant who works at the Police Academy.
“One of our supervisor’s got an email about it and sent out a request to see if anyone was interested,” O’Connor recalled. “I said, ‘That sounds like fun, I’ll go.’ I was originally going to take my wife but something came up and she couldn’t go, so I called John, knowing that he is interested in this type of stuff.”
Ross sadly has plenty experience with suicide. He lost his insurance agent father to suicide in 2000 and was brother-in-law to Ryan Healy, a Chicago Police officer who committed suicide in 2013. And as a family physician, 51-year-old Ross has incorporated mental health issues into his practice for years and after seeing the showcase last winter, he said he needed to bring it to the neighborhood where so many police and firefighters live.
“My immediate reaction was that we need to get this to all the officers, we need to get this to first responders and I need to get this to the Beverly Arts Center,” Ross said.
He reached out to his friend, Ald. O’Shea, who called on the Beverly Arts Center and other politician friends to underwrite it.
Ross also invited mental health awareness groups like RE;ACT — which stands for Ryan Elwood Awareness Counseling and Training, a group that is named for the part-time firefighter who took his own life in 2015 — peer-to-peer groups and a group from the CPD with information about the department’s Employee Assistance Program to be on hand in the lobby of the Beverly Arts Center with information to anyone who is interested.
This is not the first time Ross has done something to help bring awareness to the problem. Last summer, after the third CPD suicide, O’Shea asked him and his wife how they could help first responders, which resulted in a prayer service at St. Rita High School.
“That was fairly well attended, we had about 100 people and a lot of Chicago Fire Department brass,” Ross said. For Tuesday’s event, response has been fast, requiring the arts center to open up its balcony to accommodate the demand, which will be capped at 350, Ross said. And like the prayer service, it is all about erasing the stigma that has been attached to mental health.
“The goal of this is awareness,” Ross said. You can debate Brian’s story, there are people on the department who think Brian is full of sh*t, but those are the same people who think mental health is full of sh*t. I’m just trying raise awareness. I’m not going to debate the consent decree. I’m not going to debate how many counselors we need, I’m not going to debate the fact that there are a lot of policemen who won’t go to their primary care doctor, their EAP, or peer-to-peer because they think it will somehow get back on their record and then no one wants to work with you, that you’re soft.
It is a culture change that’s needed. This is a nice start of a culture change.”
“First Responders” will take the stage at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 26 at the Beverly Arts Center, 2407 W. 111th St. Call 773-445-3838 to reserve free tickets.
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