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Utah County police departments work to change stigma, care for officers' mental health

Daily Herald - 12/28/2017

Police officers often meet the people in the communities they serve on the worst days of their lives.

It's a difficult job that requires officers to intervene, engage and put their lives on the line on a regular basis.

As such, they have higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide than the general average, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

"This is a tough job, and you have to see some things lots of people don't and shouldn't see and do things that people don't or shouldn't do," Lt. Craig Martinez, spokesperson for the Orem Police Department, said. "It gets difficult if you don't talk to someone."

The National Alliance on Mental Illness website indicates that 7 to 19 percent of police officers have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, while only 3.5 percent of the general population does.

Studies also show that nearly a quarter of police officers have thought of suicide at some point in their life, with suicide killing 2.3 times more officers than homicide.

In order to combat this and to "build resilience" in police departments, the National Alliance on Mental Illness suggests those in charge can help build a supportive culture, come up with procedures for providing psychological services after difficult incidents and find counselors that are equipped to handle the situations officers may need to discuss.

Talking to someone

Martinez said the Orem Police Department offers free, confidential counseling to police officers and their families and it is available whenever officers feel they need it.

"We have a good relationship with officers, each other and counselors and it seems to be paying off," he said.

They also can require officers to go see the counselors if they have been involved in a particularly difficult incident. Martinez said this does not mean they are required to share their feelings, rather they are required to go meet with them.

"We take mental health of our officers very seriously and we give them the tools they need to make sure they are OK," he said.

All of the police departments the Daily Herald talked to while reporting this series on mental health in policing said they offered free, confidential counseling for officers who wanted to use it.

The Provo Police Department also has a chaplain who is available anytime for officers to speak or vent to and receive guidance from, according to Detective Nick Dupaix, the department's spokesperson.

"All of us have realized that our cases are going to put a load on top of our heads and there are things we are going to have to learn to cope with. ... The fact I've had people to talk to about it and work through these problems with has really helped me," Dupaix said.

Watching out

for officers

The Provo Police Department also makes sure officers on difficult assignments are cycled through them after a few years. Dupaix, who is part of the special victims unit, said he has come to see why this is important.

"It does take a mental health toll on you, and I'll admit that having to deal with those crimes it really wears you down after hearing a lot of dark things that happen to normal people and even children. ? We have four years that we serve in that position and we rotate out, and I can see why we do that rather than stick whole career here," he said.

There are also people in a supervisory role that make sure to keep an eye on the other officers and how they are doing, behaving and the things they are going through, Dupaix said. These could be work-related or something in their personal life.

"When you have someone that goes outside of their normal behavior, it's a clear sign something is potentially wrong," he said.

Sgt. Spencer Cannon, spokesperson for the Utah County Sheriff's Office, agreed that supervisors and co-workers play an important role in watching out for their officers.

"We try as part of the supervisory chain and co-workers to keep an eye on people," he said. "When things might not be going well, it can affect their ability to think clearly on the job. ? That can put them at risk and the public at risk if we aren't thinking as clearly as we need them to (to do) their job."

Cannon said they also focus on making sure officers take their time off to fully disconnect from work, recuperate and stay connected to the important things in their lives.

Stigma

Cannon said that in years past, there was a stigma against seeking help, but that has changed.

"(The stigma) is not nearly what is has been in the past years, and we recognize everyone has challenges," Cannon said.

Lt. Martinez with the Orem Police Department said he has also seen the concerns around seeking help decrease over the years, but they aren't sure how many officers seek it out because it remains confidential.

"I think that's falling off and the stigma isn't there like it used to be," he said. "We recommend that if they need or want help they go get it."

Lt. Brandon Anderson, spokesperson for the Spanish Fork Police Department, said he knows officers who feel they need help are seeking it out and sharing their experiences with others.

"I think for most part officers are receptive. If they need help they get it," Anderson said. "It's confidential, and they don't tell us, but I know if an officer wants to share something they can. I've been in places and meetings where officers have stood up and encouraged others to get help because they received help and it helped them."

He said they work to provide all the resources and opportunities their officers may need.

"The last thing we want is to have them out there if they are having problems," he said. "We want them to get the help they need."

 
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