Breaking the stigma around mental health a priority as police departments add resources and counseling – Hartford Courant
The mental health of police officers can be something that gets overlooked, but experts say it has a powerful impact on morale and well-being.
Facing daily scenes of trauma, death and danger — among other stressors — police officers report much higher rates of depression, burnout, PTSD and anxiety than the general population with almost 25% of police officers having experienced suicidal ideation at least once in their lifetime, according to the the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
But renewed focus is being placed on awareness, resources and counseling to ensure officers are well equipped to handle the stressors that come with wearing a badge.
“It’s gaining more attention,” said Michael Lawlor, associate professor of criminal justice at the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences at the University of New Haven. “The stress on officers is a real issue, and we can see it in domestic violence cases, suicides and in some cases murder-suicides.”
Lawlor said that while there is “no perfect solution” or bill that can be passed that would take away stress on law enforcement, taking away stigma can have a big impact in making sure officers receive help.
“It’s really about destigmatizing mental health so officers feel they can get help without fear of reprisal,” Lawlor said. “Otherwise the consequences could be disastrous if officers are experiencing a mental health crisis and are on the job.”
The Wethersfield Police Department is one that is making mental health a priority with the opening of a new wellness room aimed at helping officers cope with daily stressors.
The idea for the room was born out of the department’s 30×30 initiative, a pledge to increase the number of women in policing to at least 30% by 2030. The Hartford Police Department also recently signed on to the pledge.
“It was originally going to be a lactation room, but then it expanded to be for both men and women,” said Wethersfield police Sgt. Joseph Baich. “It gets used nearly every day.”
The room, which was previously a windowless office space, is designed to bring comfort, from the rocking recliner in the center to a painting of a brook centered on the wall. The space was conceived much in the same way that “sensory rooms” are designed in schools to help students calm and focus their thoughts.
Officers can go into the room for up to 30 minutes at a time. The most important rule is that it is a work-free zone.
“It’s a place to relax,” Baich said, “not a place to work.”
Providing places of respite — and recognizing the need for one as a normal part of the job — is important, according to Phyllis DiGioia, a licensed clinical social worker in the state for 30 years.
“The idea of a wellness room might not seem like a big deal on paper,” DiGioia said, “but people don’t understand just how important it is as a place to get away from the noise and chaos of the day-to- day job of being a first responder.”
DiGioia created the Manchester-based nonprofit Honor Wellness Center to provide mental health assistance to first responders and ensure that police officers, firefighters and veterans can continue therapy without worrying about making payments.
DiGioia began working with first responders in 2002 through a state employee assistance program, many times being dispatched to fire and police departments for debriefing. In that role, she developed a relationship with the leadership of local agencies, and first responders grew to trust her, she said. She has worked with the Connecticut State Police, and the Hartford, Manchester and East Hartford police departments, among several others.
“The room takes away the stigma,” DiGioia said. “It allows officers to realize stress is normal and it should be treated as such.”
DiGioia and a licensed team of clinicians use a 2,800-square-foot space on Main Street in Manchester for both individual and group therapy. DiGoia said she has also built up a network of clinicians in the state who specialize in first responder care, so in the event she can’t meet with someone, she knows someone who lives close and is available right away.
“Stigma is still a huge part of mental health,” DiGioia said. “Sadly many first responders may feel inadequate or weak if they need help. The message is that prioritizing mental health is just as important as eating or drinking.”
The Honor Wellness Center is confidential, and first responders do not need to alert their employers they are seeking help.
“We are starting to see a change,” DiGioia said. “I actually had one employer want me to help one of their first responders who thought they could use help. They didn’t punish this individual but instead wanted them to get the proper resources. I’m seeing that more often now.”
Connecticut State Police Sgt. Christine Jeltema is on a mission to de-stigmatize mental health as an important part of overall wellness.
“It’s a big priority for us,” said Jeltema, wellness coordinator for the Connecticut State Police. “We try to make sure our troopers get the care they need.”
Jeltema, along with Trooper First Class Rodney Valdes, sees the State Troopers Offering Peer Support program, known as STOPS, as an important aspect of boosting morale among the force.
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The state police first implemented the STOPS program in 2008, training troopers to act as volunteer peer support counselors. The program is confidential and allows troopers to discuss problems with employees at an off-site location. Troopers who want to be peer support counselors have to apply, go through an intensive interview process and receive the appropriate training.
“We have around 80 peer support counselors on the total force,” Jeltema said. “These troopers are trained in crisis intervention and stress management. Troopers see and respond to a lot of stressors. It’s important they feel they have a place to go and talk.”
Valdes oversees the STOPS program and the interfaith chaplaincy program, which focuses on spirituality with 17 chaplains and another six in the vetting process. He has expanded the STOPS program to more than 80 troopers trained in peer-to-peer counseling with another dozen in training.
More than 400 officers used the STOPS program for counseling in its first year alone, according to Connecticut State Police findings, and that number has continued to grow during the pandemic.
Jeltema is in the process of revamping the “Surgeons” program, an antiquated name for a program that started in 1903 as a way of allowing surgeons and other physicians to volunteer their time to aid the state police. She envisions a program that would allow volunteer physicians of all types to help employees and their families with medical and mental health issues.
“It’s all about people getting people the resources they need,” Jeltema said. “I know people can be afraid if they speak up. But our command staff is fully invested in our peer support program.”
Stephen Underwood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.