OCCUPATIONAL HAZARD: After her son was killed during a late-night standoff with police, Adina Peyton was inspired to start a non-profit organization to provide mental health services to first responders who experience trauma on the job. (Photo by Getty)
After Adina Peyton lost her son in a police shooting, she found a new purpose—supporting first responders who experience trauma.
by Ellen Summey
Rapid mood swings, paranoia, increased agitation, abusive behavior, risk-taking, inability to perform basic daily tasks, loss of touch with reality—these are some of the warning signs of an acute mental health crisis. It is estimated that one in five adults in the U.S. lives with some form of mental health disorder, and the symptoms may vary widely, depending on the particular diagnosis. When those people don’t receive adequate treatment or support—and even sometimes when they do—some may eventually spiral into a full-blown mental health crisis. If a bystander or witness dials 911 and first responders haven’t been trained to safely and appropriately intervene, the results can be tragic.
SIGNS OF TROUBLE
It was a Friday afternoon when Adina Peyton, a longtime instructor at the U.S. Army Acquisition Center of Excellence in Huntsville, Alabama, realized that her son Brad Pugh was struggling. Pugh, 41, had come to spend the weekend with his mom, and it didn’t take her long to see that something was bothering him. “I noticed that he was not right on Friday, but by Monday, he was manic. ‘Mom, they’re out there. Mom. Mom,’ ” she recalled him saying. Pugh had struggled with substance abuse and mental health disorders for years, but he had built a successful plumbing business and was residing in a sober living environment nearby at the time. Things had been looking up, but Peyton said a family issue had seemed to precipitate a sudden mental decline for Pugh.
“Brad, I’ve got to work,” she told her son repeatedly, as he paced in and out throughout the day. Peyton had started teaching a new online course from her home that Monday. By the end of the workday, she had become frustrated by his interruptions and asked him to leave. When Peyton went to bed that night, she had no idea that her son had taken her unloaded handgun and climbed onto the roof of a local restaurant, where he would soon have a standoff with police.
“He took my pistol, which wasn’t loaded and hadn’t been since I bought it, and he climbed up on top of Ted’s Bar-B-Q. As I was sleeping, there were camera crews from three different news stations—the whole neighborhood was cordoned off. He was up on the roof, in the cold, probably wondering where I was,” she said in an interview with Army AL&T.
MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCES
The U.S. Army and DOD provide a number of mental health resources for service members, civilian employees, veterans and family members. In the case of any potentially life-threatening mental health emergency, dial 911. For emotional distress or suicidal thoughts, contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Call or text 988 or go to 988lifeline.org.
For additional resources for service members, veterans and their families, go to https://www.mentalhealth.gov/get-help/veterans.
Police knocked on her door at around 1:30 a.m. Nov. 17, to tell her what was going on, but Peyton said officers asked her not to go out to the scene, perhaps fearing that could worsen the situation if Pugh was angry that she asked him to leave her home earlier. So she waited. When the police came back to her house about 90 minutes later, Peyton said they told her that her son had been involved in an accident. “When they stammered and told me what happened, I said, ‘What do you mean, there was an accident?’ [The officer] said, ‘Ma’am, there will be a complete investigation.’ In that moment, it hit me. ‘Oh, no. I’m going to have to fight this fight.’ ”
A PLEA FOR ACCOUNTABILITY
What came next was all over the news in Huntsville. Peyton learned that her son had been shot 16 times by seven officers while attempting to run from the police that night. When local officials didn’t answer her questions, she showed up and gave the City Council a piece of her mind. She made signs. She put up billboards. She marched on Washington. She told Pugh’s story to anyone and everyone who would listen, and she demanded accountability.
One day, about eight months after the shooting, as Peyton drove through her neighborhood and passed the place where Pugh was killed, she felt a familiar rush of emotions and thought, “This must be what PTSD feels like.” At that moment, she said, “Something clicked and I thought about those seven police officers who shot my son, and I wondered how they processed that, and how they felt when I was on the news all the time, pleading, crying and demanding transparency.”
That was the start of something new for Peyton. She began thinking of the Soldiers she had taught over the years. Many of them had come to her classroom very shortly after returning from a war zone and she noticed some who struggled with trauma. She knew that many Soldiers enter law enforcement after leaving active duty, and as the two groups became enmeshed in her mind, she began to visualize her new mission. She decided to call a truce.
For her next step, Peyton “made amends with everyone at the City Council,” and founded a nonprofit organization to provide mental health services to first responders.
A NEW START
Peyton named the fledgling organization “Getting Real About Mental Illness,” or GRAMI for short. Founded in January 2022, it aims to “change the cultural mindset toward and the treatment of those with mental illness by providing education and financial resources to first responders who interact with them and destigmatizing mental illness among the public,” according to the GRAMI website.
Peyton, as executive director, has worked nonstop to build bridges within the first responder community, drafting agreements with private mental health care providers and securing funding to cover treatment up to $1,000 for those in need. She held a press conference in July, officially launching the nonprofit and sharing her vision of “helping the people that are taking care of us.”
Don Webster, the community relations officer for Huntsville Emergency Medical Services Inc., also spoke at the press conference and shared his hopes for the future of GRAMI. “There’s not a lot of help out there [for first responders],” he said. “I hope this will provide more in-depth counseling and opportunities for them to debrief, defuse or whatever the case may be.”
HOW TO HELP
The National Council for Mental Wellbeing offers a five-step action plan for bystanders who need to intervene in case of a mental health or substance abuse challenge. The organization offers free training and certification in its Mental Health First Aid course, which is a one-day session available in many locations across the country. The five steps in the plan can be implemented in any order, and they are as follows:
A – Approach, assess for risk of suicide or harm. Keep the person’s privacy and confidentiality in mind, but try to find a way to start the conversation. If the person does not wish to talk to you, encourage them to confide in another trusted person.
L – Listen nonjudgmentally. It’s important to let the person share without being interrupted unnecessarily. Try to listen with empathy, even if the person says things with which you do not agree.
G – Give reassurance and information. Be prepared to offer a sense of optimism and some helpful facts after the person shares with you.
E – Encourage appropriate professional help. Offer to help the person find which types of professional help may be available to them. The sooner they can get the appropriate support, the better their chances of a full recovery.
E – Encourage self-help and other support strategies. These are the other resources beyond professional care. Help them think through their own personal support system, try to identify local programs that may be relevant, and talk about creating a self-care plan.
Of course, these steps may not be effective for everyone or every situation. If a person is behaving erratically, or is thinking of self-harm or harm to others, call 911 immediately.
To find a Mental Health First Aid course near you, go to https://www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org/take-a-course.
“This was my destiny,” Peyton said of founding the nonprofit. “It all comes back to the men and women I’ve served for 41 years—I’ve seen the damage, the trauma they’ve experienced, and I’ve seen the detrimental impacts on their families, careers and education. When it happened to me and I felt that trauma, after trying to process and grieve, I was able to see that I could do something about that for first responders.”
Meanwhile, Peyton has continued teaching at the Army Acquisition Center of Excellence, and said this experience has changed the way she interacts with her students. “There is no fear anymore. I always try to demonstrate in my classes that family is truly first. I like to have a good time, and if you ask anyone I ever taught, they’ll vouch for that,” she chuckled. “I try to bring real life into the classroom and I teach with storytelling. Now, especially, I remind my students to look out for each other, and that it’s OK to talk about when you’re not doing well.”
For more information about GRAMI, go to https://gramius.org or email Gettingrealaboutmentalillness@gmail.com.
ELLEN SUMMEY provides contract support to the U. S. Army Acquisition Support Center at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, as a communications project manager for SAIC. She holds an M.A. in human relations from the University of Oklahoma and a B.A. in mass communication from Louisiana State University. She has earned the Accreditation in Public Relations and Military Communication, is certified as a Project Management Professional, and has more than 18 years of communication experience in both the government and commercial sectors.