Long before Ryan Keheler was a writer on the the CBS law enforcement drama S.W.A.T. he was the go-to confidant for all his friend’s problems in high school.
“A lot of people would turn to me for life and relationship advice, to vent, or to break down,” Keheler says.
But it wasn’t just people he knew that found themselves opening up to him. “I can’t even count the number of times I’m with a stranger and found myself comforting someone who is pouring their heart out to me,” he says.
Once, after spending just 15 minutes with him, a Los Angeles County Sheriff started tearing up and could barely speak about his especially rough day, says Keheler.
Over the years, however, Keheler says he started to hear warning signs from within someone else: himself.
The Catalyst for Change
Unlike all the friends, family members, and random people he met, Keheler says he didn’t share his feelings of anxiety and depression. He internalized them. And then the problems began to snowball.
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He’d push off everyday to-do items. Procrastination led to more stress. He’d stay in instead of hanging out with friends. He skipped exercising.
Eventually, when Keheler was about 27, his girlfriend called him out on his behaviors. “By not opening up and talking about how I was feeling, it was hurting her,” he says.
Keheler says he didn’t even realize he was withholding his emotions. “I’d been everyone else’s rock for so long that my own mental well-being became a bit of an afterthought.”
“Keeping her in the dark led to her feeling doubt and jealousy, because I wasn’t being as open with her as she was with me,” he says. “I realized that I would lose the one person in my life that mattered the most if I didn’t make a change.”
“I eventually realized that ‘help’ can take many shapes and forms,” Keheler says. “For me, it’s about being mindful of my own actions and thoughts. I know now the stressors that set me off, and the best ways I have of fighting back.”
The immediate way Keheler fought back was to talk to the friends and family that had turned to him for all those years.
The big change came through how he communicated with his girlfriend (now fiancée). Instead of trying to take care of whatever was triggering his anxiety, he’d talk through it with her.
Keheler knows he was lucky to have friends and family to support him, and it made him wonder about people who didn’t have systems like that in place. “That’s when the troubling rise in police suicides in recent years caught my attention,” he says.
Blue H.E.L.P—a non-profit that brings awareness to law enforcements deaths by suicide—recorded more than 600 officer suicides between January 2016 and August 2019.
Keheler has been working on the CBS show S.W.A.T. since 2017, and became a writer’s assistant for the third season. When he brought up covering this difficult subject on the show, everyone in the room supported it, he says.
“We came to realize that we were uniquely positioned to not only tell a responsible story about suicidal ideation among police officers, but also about the importance of mental health awareness,” he says.
That discussion turned into the episode of S.W.A.T. that airs tonight, at 10:00 pm (EST) on CBS, which Keheler wrote, and was created with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Tonight’s episode, called “Stigma”, starts with the S.W.A.T. team concerned about Buck’s (Louis Ferreira) mental health and fear the worst when he goes missing.
Best Possible Screengrab/CBS
The episode is about the warning signs of suicidal ideation, Keheler says: “The psychological traumas that play into it, and the ways to reach out and help loved ones who may be at risk of taking their own life.”
It’s also about de-stigmatizing the discussion of mental health.
“Every active S.W.A.T. member appears onscreen and speaks openly with a therapist about their feelings, struggles, fears, and more,” Keheler says. “We wanted to show that not only is it okay to be vulnerable and open—it is normal and essential.”
For Keheler, this was an important episode for him to write, he says.
“Having battled depression myself, I know how easy it is to get trapped in that spiral of hopelessness. Without a support system in place, without an outlet … you can see how many people find themselves venturing down that path.”
If you you’re having thoughts of suicide, call 1-800-273-8255, The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s 24/7, toll-free hotline available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.
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