Oct 14, 2020 11:01 AM

Officer shares mental health struggles: 'There’s resources there to help you'

Posted Oct 14, 2020 11:01 AM
Koda and Nolan
Koda and Nolan

By KALEY CONNER
High Plains Mental Health Center

Ever since he was a kid, Sgt. Nolan Weiser knew he wanted a career in law enforcement. After graduating from Plainville High School, he promptly set out to make his dream come true.  He began his career with Hays Police Department in 2015, shortly after his 21st birthday. 

It didn’t take him long to realize the job was much more than he’d realized.

“I got the full experience, and I didn’t fully understand what it was going to be like to be a police officer,” Weiser said. “If you would have told me all the stories, the stuff that I would have dealt with before I was a cop – I might have said, ‘Hey, I don’t want to do this.’ I didn’t realize the seriousness of it.”

The first serious incident he responded to was a trench collapse in downtown Hays, which caused two fatalities in 2016. Weiser was still in training and was one of the first officers on scene. He spoke of the shock he felt as he realized the magnitude of what had happened.

“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I remember I saw another officer, he had a tear rolling down his eye,” he said. “That was my first really major incident. I didn’t really know how to process it.”

High Plains Mental Health Center had counselors on the scene and provided a Critical Incident Stress Management debriefing for first responders shortly after that event. Weiser was asked to attend, but said he was too shy to speak about his experience at that time. 

A short time later, Nolan moved to Rooks County and started his “dream job” of becoming a K-9 sergeant with the sheriff’s office. He has been with his canine, a German shepherd named Koda, since 2017, and said it was ideal returning to the community he grew up in. That also made the job more emotional, he said, because he personally knows many people in the county.

His life was forever changed on a snowy spring day in 2018. It was a Sunday night and he was home on a break from his shift. A call came through for a welfare check, which is not uncommon. But that call ultimately led officers to the scene of a violent homicide.

Nolan was one of the first on scene and described it as the most horrible thing he had ever witnessed. 

“I remember the ambulance pulling off. It was a horrific thing to hear that ambulance at 4 in the morning, snow was on the ground and it was so still,” he said. “They pulled off and there were so many emotions going through me. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be dealing with this anymore.’ ”

After that, he was awake for many more hours assisting with the investigation. When he returned home, he remembers breaking down in tears, a rare occurrence. Though exhausted, he still couldn’t sleep. Images from the crime scene flashed through his mind every time he closed his eyes, so he lay awake all night.

And the night after that. And the night after that. 

In the coming weeks, Nolan and his friends and family would notice more sudden changes in his mood and behavior. He began experiencing paranoid thoughts, and was afraid to walk outside his house alone to get dog food for Koda – part of his nightly routine. Though he doesn’t particularly like the taste of alcohol and had never been much of a drinker, his alcohol consumption was increasing.

“I don’t like drinking for the most part. But half the time I just started drinking because I wanted to feel better,” he said. “I didn’t want to think about it.”

He lost interest in his usual activities and responsibilities, and began to feel “numb” while on shift for work. On his days off, he would sleep all day, lay around the house doing nothing or begin drinking.

His wife was pregnant at the time with their first child, but Nolan didn’t feel excited anymore.

As the days dragged on, Nolan became aware his struggle was affecting his loved ones. It was affecting his marriage, and even Koda became agitated. As Nolan continued to experience sleepless nights, the canine would sit up with him on high alert, frequently growling with his hair standing on end. That added to Nolan’s anxiety, so he reached out to Koda’s trainer.

“He said, ‘I know what you’re going through.’ That dog is so close to you, he knows something’s not right with you,” Nolan said. “Dogs can be simple-minded, but they’re smart. That dog had an image of me, normal images of me smiling, happy, playful, and he was looking at me and seeing something wrong.”

His wife was supportive and often encouraged him to get help, and Nolan eventually spoke to his priest and to a peer support officer at Hays Police Department. He also participated in another Critical Incident Stress Management debriefing provided by High Plains Mental Health Center. That helped for a while, but it eventually became clear professional counseling was needed.

 His supervisors at work noticed Nolan “wasn’t the same person” and also began encouraging professional help. The final straw, Weiser said, was when his wife begged him to get help – if not for himself, for the sake of their family and their baby daughter on the way.

He hesitantly returned to High Plains Mental Health Center, and remembers feeling embarrassed and afraid. A therapist at High Plains told Nolan he was experiencing symptoms consistent with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. 

PTSD, also known as Post Traumatic Stress Injury, affects an estimated 8 million U.S. adults every year, and about 7 percent of the population will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. The illness can affect anyone, but is more common among first responders and military due to prolonged or repeated exposure to trauma and extreme stress.

He soon began regular counseling appointments with Amy Bird, an outpatient therapist and integrated care specialist at High Plains. 

“After our first session, it started to get a lot better. She really helped me through some things,” he said. “As time got on, things started to get better at home. I quit picturing stuff. She started helping me with some coping stuff. … One thing she gave me was a different perspective.”

Amy assured him he was having “a normal reaction to an abnormal event,” and that helped tremendously, Nolan said. 

“If I would have had no reaction, that would be unusual,” he said.

Mental health problems are common. An estimated 1 in 4 U.S. adults will experience a mental health problem at some point in their lives, but only about 41 percent of those experiencing symptoms will seek treatment. The median amount of time people wait before seeking help is 10 years, Bird said.

“We know that treatment helps and we know early intervention is key, but one of the factors that prevents people from seeking treatment is the stigma associated with mental health problems and treatment,” Bird said. “As Nolan’s story illustrates, mental health problems can impact every area of a person’s life and not only affect the person suffering from the disorder, but also family members, friends and colleagues.

“I am so grateful to Nolan for having the courage to share his experiences and for his efforts to decrease stigma. I hope that it helps others struggling with a mental health problem to realize that help is available, there is hope and recovery is possible.”

After attending regular therapy sessions, Nolan has been able to recover from the trauma and get his life back. Since the incident in 2018, Weiser has worked to better himself, which was encouraged during therapy. He’s now a field training officer, and speaks candidly about mental health with his trainees, encouraging them to seek help when it’s needed.

“It’s not easy,” he says of the job. “Life’s not easy. But there’s resources there to help you.”

His department is working to normalize mental health, and Nolan says he wants to do whatever he can to reduce stigma around trauma and mental illness – particularly among first responders.

He and his wife are now expecting twins – one boy and one girl – and he can’t wait to play sports with his son. And his bond with Koda is stronger than ever. 

“When I first came (to High Plains), I didn’t want anybody to know. The only person who knew was my wife. My life was at an all-time low, and now it’s so much better. I’m very thankful for that,” he said. 

“I love law enforcement, I love my job, I love working with Koda. But if I wouldn’t have ever come here, I don’t think I’d still be in law enforcement today.”

High Plains Mental Health Center is proud to offer critical incident stress management de-briefings to community partners in our 20-county service area. With headquarters in Hays, the community mental health center has six full-time service locations and 15 community outreach offices. Most insurance policies are accepted and a sliding fee scale is available. Services are not refused based on inability to pay.

For more information about mental health services, call High Plains at (785) 628-2871. A 24/7 crisis hotline is available for Northwest Kansas at (800) 432-0333.