Hope is a four legged friend: Local family using service dog journey to break mental health stigma

SALISBURY, Md. – Not all superheroes wear capes. Some actually wear a leash and a collar. “I’ve had veterans call me up at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning and say ‘Chris, I’m sitting here and I’ve got a gun in my hand.’ I start to freak out, but they’ll say ‘I’m good. My pup came up and put his head on my lap, and gave me those big eyes, and saved my life,'” said Executive Director of U.S. Kennels Chris Hardy.

New Family Member, New Beginnings

The O’Barsky family recently started their own journey of acquiring and training a service dog. Serenity, or Ren for short, is still undergoing training. She’s already proving to be not only a pup with a promising future, but a symbol of a much greater fight. As Salisbury Deputy Fire Chief Chris O’Barsky says, there’s a stigma around mental health in the first responder community.

Now O’Barsky is hoping his and Ren’s story will help change that narrative. “I felt like if I said anything people would think I was weak, that it was time for me to give the job up, that I couldn’t be trusted anymore, that I wasn’t good enough anymore,” he said. “Ren is just another way someone will be with me constantly with unconditional love and no judgment. She just knows when I’m in trouble. She’s going to help me out.”

“Suck it up, buttercup.”

While first responders are a community’s real life superheroes, just like everyone else, they don’t have super powers. Eastern Shore Psychological Services counselor and founder of Behind the Line Heather Brown says the scenes that first responders go to every day can sometimes be traumatic. “You’re seeing people at their worst. You’re seeing people who are in crisis and aren’t able to help themselves, or at the verge of dying,” she said.

Brown likens that slow build up of undealt-with emotions to a fire. “You do what you can to put it out. That’s where the negative coping mechanisms come in, and unfortunately it doesn’t work. That’s when it starts to spread and becomes out of control,” she said.

That’s why O’Barsky says for years, putting his life on the front line, meant leaving mental health on the back burner. “It’s the ‘suck it up, buttercup’ attitude. I’ve heard numerous times ‘This is what you got into the service for.’ But, it’s really not,” he said. “I didn’t get into the service to end up having nightmares and flashbacks, and end up at a center for 40 days, or end up drinking. That was not what I signed up for. I signed up to help people.”

That stigma eventually led to silence. O’Barsky’s wife, Tara, says while Chris was silently struggling, there was also a strain on his family’s wellbeing. “They don’t want to share that trauma with us or expose us to that. So, they just keep pushing it back or compartmentalizing it,” she said. “He’s on the job several hours at a time, and then having to switch that off and come home and have home brain and be with your family, it’s so difficult.”

An Every Day Struggle

O’Barsky ended up struggling with severe PTSD. Brown says those dealing with the disorder face an every day, uphill battle. “A trigger could be a smell, it could be a sound, it could just be a thought. It could be as simple as driving down the highway and remembering an accident that happened at an intersection,” she said. “We think that if we can just push emotions away or push reactions away, that should take care of it. In fact, that only makes things worse.”

O’Barsky says once he did get some help, he learned about how to use positive coping mechanisms. But, even those aren’t enough sometimes. Brown says a breaking point can be easy to reach. “If you get emotionally attached, it becomes way too overwhelming and you can’t do your job. So, you learn how to numb yourself. By numbing yourself, you’re then going to go and continuously face these tragedies every day,” she said. “But, the problem is once they numb themselves, the numbing doesn’t just stop there. It goes into all other relationships and areas of their life.”

Hope Is A Four Legged Friend

At this point on O’Barsky’s path to recovery, he says he’s doing better. But, he wants others to know that they don’t have go it alone. A glimmer of hope may even come in the form of a four legged friend. “Ren is just another way one will be with me constantly with unconditional love and no judgment. She just knows when I’m in trouble. She’s going to help me out,” said O’Barsky.

Brown says animals like Ren, or her therapy dog Benji, can make all the difference. “He just brings smiles. He breaks the ice, he relaxes people, he allows them to feel more comfortable. Coming into a therapeutic situation can be very scary for somebody, especially if the culture has been ‘We don’t talk about things.'” she said.

Pricey Pup

But that help can come with a hefty price tag, sometimes as much as $30,000. “A lot of little stuff adds up. It’s dog food, training treats, equipment, the training itself, travel time,” said Hardy. “You’re looking at vet bills, dog food. The dog food we use is $60 a bag. So, if I’ve a Yorkie, then okay. We can stretch it. But if I have a bigger dog like a Great Dane, we’re going to need some more dog food.”

Fortunately for the O’Barsky family, U.S. Kennels agreed to pay half of that $30,000. In the past, the 501(c)(3) non-profit limited their services to certain disabled veterans. To meet eligibility, the recipient must have had 70% or more disability, a letter from the VA confirming ongoing treatment, and had to be involved in combat in most cases. Hardy says U.S. Kennels had been toying with the idea of opening services up to first responders for about a year. After seeing the impact service dogs have had on disabled veterans, Hardy says O’Barsky’s story was the perfect place to start.

And for the other $15,000, the community stepped up, pledging their support in a GoFundMe campaign that quickly surpassed the original goal. “Never in a million years did I think in four hours I was going to be able to raise $15,000, let alone $18,000, let alone what we’re at now,” said O’Barsky.

Smashing The Stigma

Now that Ren is part of the family, the O’Barskys are once again reaching out to the community. “It’s super humbling how supportive this community has been – our friends, family, community members, complete strangers that we didn’t even know,” said Tara. “We hope that momentum will continue so we can continue to help other people. I mean, we’ve almost raised enough to help another first responder with a dog.”

But that mission isn’t just limited to helping others in need find their own service animals. The O’Barskys say their ultimate goal is to smash the stigma of mental health in the first responder community. “It’s okay to not be okay. There’s nothing wrong with it. It doesn’t make you weak or less valuable. It’s okay to be vulnerable,” said O’Barsky.

If you’d like to donate to the O’Barskys GoFundMe, click here.

Categories: Local News, Maryland