How police are addressing mental health on the job

Solutions

A police officer investigates a crime scene where two people were killed and three more critically injured in a shooting at a flea market in Houston, Texas on May 15, 2022. – Two people were killed and three more were taken to a hospital with injuries after a shooting May 15, 2022 at a bustling Houston flea market, authorities said. The shooting at the open-air market arose from an “altercation” that involved at least two guns and all five of the people, according to Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez. He said no “innocent bystanders” were injured. (Photo by Mark Felix / AFP) (Photo by MARK FELIX/AFP /AFP via Getty Images)

(NewsNation) — America’s law enforcement and first responders face substantial mental health challenges as a result of the nature of their jobs. By one estimate, law enforcement personnel face at least a 50% greater risk of suicide than the general population.

In order to combat this problem, Wisconsin state Sen. André Jacque pushed to pass legislation that made it easier for police and firefighters to receive workers’ compensation for PTSD.

Jacque had become aware of a law enforcement officer in his district who was involved in numerous life-saving police operations. But the officer wasn’t able to be on active duty because he wasn’t getting proper care for his mental health.

The senator was frustrated that public safety workers could get coverage when there was a physical injury associated with their trauma, but not when their mental health was in jeopardy.

“If you’re in the Internet Crimes Against Children unit, how does that not scar you with some of the things that you’re going to come across in that job?” Jacque said.

Under the law Jacque pushed through the statehouse, Wisconsin firefighters and police can apply for workers’ compensation for their PTSD, but volunteers and some EMS workers still aren’t covered. Jacque said he is planning on moving legislation to expand coverage in the near future.

Addressing Day-to-Day Challenges

In Georgia, these challenges associated with first responder mental health care are well-known to the Marietta Police Department.

The department has been making more investments in mental health resources — including the coming introduction of a wellness room — as it faces many of the same challenges as law enforcement elsewhere.

Chuck McPhilamy, the department’s public information officer, said that the first challenge is addressing the stigma around acknowledging mental health care issues.

“We have a perceived ideology in place that if someone reached out to you as the road sergeant as they report to and said hey man I’m not sure I’m feeling okay or I’m feeling depressed you’re viewed as, traditionally or the stigma can be that you become viewed as broken or weak,” he said.

Beyond that, McPhilamy said it’s important to make sure police officers have access to mental health resources.

“The second step would be to allow (law enforcement) quicker, easier access to a host of different counselors that they could talk to and seek guidance from,” he said.

He pointed to a program the nearby Wellstar Kennestone Hospital implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic. The hospital opened up wellness rooms where staff can listen to soft music and relax.

“So they created this wellness room and had the very classic example of their staff initially raising an eyebrow and ‘Well why are we spending money on that?’ Or ‘Is this really going to work?’ All of the traditional questions you would imagine,” McPhilamy said.

But once staff had a chance to use the rooms, their impressions changed. “What they found is that everyone from the entry-level person up to surgeons, were booking time in this room constantly,” he noted.

Marietta’s police learned from the hospital’s example and will be opening up their own wellness room in January.

“There will be a massage chair, there will be music in the background that you can personalize for yourself whether it’s a sound of nature happening in the woods or whether it’s a creek, all of that happening with that same backbeat in the background that you’re not hearing that will allow your body to decompress and re-center,” McPhilamy said.

Ultimately, McPhilamy argued, police agencies have to be proactive about attending to mental health in order to grow and thrive.

“It broke our hearts to lose a brother and to lose someone that you didn’t expect to ever go down that path. And I would challenge any other agency, we would challenge any other agency, even if you haven’t experienced this within your agency and you believe that it’s not a problem for you,” he said, “Ask yourself: Is there someone new within your ranks that could go to a traumatic call today and be impacted differently than the person who’s been doing the job for ten years and has learned how to cope with those situations?”

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