CHICAGO — One phone call can be the difference between life and death for first responders struggling with mental health. This weekend, a fundraiser aims to aid in the solution by raising money and awareness.

Horse Thief Hollow is in the business of brewing and labeling beer but in a charitable way. The organization is brewing up a recipe to help first responders and their mental health.

Kelly Krauchun is with Bank the Blue.

“Bank the Blue was started by five professionals in the business world that work with police officers,” Krauchun said. “We noticed the need for mental health services outside of respective departments.”

Mental health services for police, fire and paramedics fall under the Employee Assistance Program. But for many first responders, there is an inherent distrust of the EAP program.

“We recognize that EAP, while they do a great job, it’s simply just not enough,” Krauchun said. “You’re not really inclined to go to your boss and say, ‘Hey, I’m struggling, I had this traumatic incident, I had a death or loss in my family, and I need help.’ That just doesn’t happen in the real world, then magnify that in the law enforcement community (and the) stigma associated.”

It’s why Bank the Blue has teamed up with RE;ACT4Ryan.

​Lt. Ryan Elwood is the nephew of WGN’s Patrick Elwood. He was a hero who was awarded a Medal of Valor for saving a women’s life on a 911 call in 2012. Three years later, in the depths of depression, he could not save his own.

In his wake, his family formed REACT — Ryan Elwood: Awareness, Counseling and Training. In conjunction with the Illinois Firefighter Peer Support network and the Illinois Fire Service Institute at the University of Illinois, REACT provides training to help recognize when someone is struggling and what can be done to prevent tragedy.

There are more first responders in Ald. Matt O’Shea’s 19th Ward than any other in the city.

“More needs to be done to support these men and women,” he said. “Each and every day, our first responders leave their family and go out there and put their lives before others, more often than not for people they don’t even know. With a job like that, what they see, day in and day out, is the ugliest parts of society, the horrible crime scenes, the terrible tragedies that they witness day in and day out. It takes a toll and affects them psychologically, and then they’re supposed to go home to their families and live a normal life.”

O’Shea has witnessed a spike in suicides in recent years, which he attributes in large part to the pandemic and civil unrest.

“We’ve seen segments of society turn on our first responders,” O’Shea said.

Advocates will sell beer canned at Horse Thief Hollow at an event to help raise more money and bring additional awareness to the cause.

“On the job, no one wants to feel incapable of doing the job or weak,” said mental health professional Dr. Kristy McKiness, who specializes in counseling first responders and their families.

McKiness adds that sometimes the warning signs are apparent.

“Some of that is feeling hopeless or helpless or stuck in a situation, having a lot of anger or mood fluctuations, and a lot of times they start to withdraw from friends and family, and they start to isolate, which oftentimes leads to an increased in drug and alcohol use,” McKiness said.

While the subject matter is serious, the event promises to be a good time, and you can take that to the bank!

“We are able to connect with React4Ryan, who was doing something similar to Bank the Blue for firefighters and their families,” McKiness said. “It’s just a great event, a lot of fun to kick off Mental Health Awareness Month, but it’s going to bring awareness to not only just the organization but also keep working to end that stigma.”

Saturday’s event is from noon to 3 p.m. at the Horse Thief Hollow, located at 104th and Western. White Sox great Ron Kittle will be on hand.