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Law Enforcement Officers Exposed to Trauma Receive Stress Management Services From Crisis & Counseling Centers

Date: 2016-01-07
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Police officers enter the public safety profession willing to put themselves at risk to protect the community. In addition to physical dangers, daily work-related stressors may lead to long-term mental and emotional health consequences.

Crisis & Counseling Centers (C&C) recently formalized its Mental Health Resiliency Program (MHRP), which provides law enforcement stress management and debriefing services in central Maine.

According to a 2008 study conducted by the University of Buffalo, 23 percent of male and 25 percent of female officers reported more suicidal thoughts than the general population. The same study suggested that officers over the age of 40 had a higher risk of a coronary event over a 10-year period compared to average national standards. In 2003, Congress passed the Hometown Heroes act, acknowledging that officers who die as a result of a heart attack or stroke while on duty (or within 24 hours of having been on call) have passed away in the line of duty.

Crisis & Counseling Centers’ MHRP staff are specifically trained to understand and respond to the behavioral health needs of law enforcement. The program offers two different services: pre-incident stress management and resilience building for law enforcement officers, as well as debriefings for these officers, first responders and corrections officers after a critical incident has occurred.

“We work with law enforcement agencies to provide a baseline and follow up to help officers address and monitor the emotional and psychological impacts of providing law enforcement services, including exposure to some of the most extreme human experiences,” said C&C Chief Executive Officer Michael Mitchell, LCSW, who helped design the program.

Crisis & Counseling Centers conducts pre-incident stress management and resilience-building sessions with law enforcement units on a regular basis. A trained C&C clinician meets individually with law enforcement personnel to discuss difficult experiences, monitor stress symptoms, provide education and connect them to community services. Sessions can range from 15 minutes to two hours, depending on the individual’s needs.

Research has shown that pre-incident stress education can help officers better prepare to manage acute stress reactions. “As the stress and pressures put on law enforcement take on a greater scope, there is a broader overarching impact. But they have developed a greater understanding of their need to take care of themselves as they are taking care of everyone else,” said Hannah Longley, LCSW, one of C&C’s primary MHRP clinicians and the agency’s crisis clinical manager, who has been collaborating with police units professionally for more than a decade. “They’ve always taken the time to put on their vests to protect themselves physically, and now they are taking time to take care of themselves mentally as well.”

According to Longley, research dating back to the Civil War has shown the impact that chronic stress and trauma can have on the emotional and physical well-being of soldiers and first responders, including law enforcement. “By helping people manage their stress appropriately, we are able to make sure that by the end of their careers they are healthy, happy, and able to enjoy retirement. There are not only emotional benefits, but also research has shown a decreased risk of coronary events.”

MHRP’s second service, the post-incident debriefing, is available to local police departments, corrections officers and first responders as needed. On a daily basis, officers respond to traumatic situations involving child abuse, serious accidents, sexual assaults, domestic violence and unattended deaths. “These incidents are frequent for them, and I think over time it manifests itself so the officers may have a hard time dealing emotionally,” said Chief Joseph Massey of the Waterville Police Department, which has received two MHRP debriefings.

“The post-incident debriefings help officers and first responders process events after they have been involved in a particular incident, such as a suicide or traumatic death,” Longley said.

The Augusta Police Department received its first MHRP debriefing in 2013 after a teenage suicide – a particularly stressful incident that contributed to one emergency dispatcher’s resignation, recalled Deputy Chief Jared Mills.

During debriefings, C&C’s licensed mental health clinicians lead group discussions and outline the range of normal reactions to critical incidents. “Officers have come away from debriefings thinking, ‘I may be quiet or I may not talk, but that’s normal after an incident like this,’” Mills said.

Everyone responds differently to traumatic situations, Massey agreed. “Some people may seek out someone to talk to or maybe even a more formal type of help, while other people can deal with it by themselves. For their own health, they need to make sure they aren’t keeping [emotions] bottled up that will impact them later.”

According to Longley, officers are unlikely to seek help for mental health concerns that arise from their careers, often due to stigma. “But we’re starting to see more awareness as research comes out about the impact of stress on physical health. Officers are recognizing the connection between a healthy mind and a healthy body.”

Prior to MHRP, the Waterville Police Department relied on its Employee Assistance Program and local clergy members to help officers overcome emotional trauma. “But debriefing in a group setting allows people to feel more comfortable and realize they’re not the only one,” Massey said. “People perceive police to be tough-skinned, but we’re just like everyone else. It wears you down after a while.” Added Longley, “It’s important to recognize that officers are people, too, and they do care. That’s why they’ve chosen a profession where they put themselves on the line for us every day. We want to make sure we’re there for them, too.”

Crisis & Counseling Centers serves individuals with behavioral health needs, including mental health, substance abuse and co-occurring concerns. The nonprofit agency is the sole provider of crisis services for Kennebec and Somerset counties and administers 24-hour-a-day crisis services to those in need. The agency also offers G.E.A.R. Parent Network to empower parents and caregivers of children with behavioral health needs statewide; Maine Mothers Network for pregnant and parenting women using substances; and a Medication Management program for clients with addictions or mental health issues.

To learn more about C&C, visit crisisandcounseling.org or call Central Access at 207.626.3448. If you are in crisis, call 1.888.568.1112.

- People, Places & Things/9-1-1magazine.com (via C&C, 12/8/15)

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