May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Please, if you haven’t already, take a moment to check in with yourself and/or someone you love. And if something’s up (or down, for that matter), talk about it.
Mental health is something of which we ALL should be aware and about which we should all be comfortable engaging in active conversations. But it’s a hard topic to talk about for many. And it’s especially hard when talking about mental health related to controversial societal topics.
With the focus on all facets of impact that first responders have had in our collective consciousness over the past year—the amazingly heroic, the good, the not so good, and the downright awful—one aspect of the activities and lives of emergency responders that we don’t actively talk about, or even pause to consider all that often, is the mental health stress and toll that is experienced by this group simply from doing their jobs.
Why does the mental health of emergency responders matter?
We look to the front-line emergency responders to actively engage in situations that most of us spend the majority of our lives proactively trying to avoid. While the “how” of this protection is something that we have recently started to think more about, the majority of us often take for granted that the safety net provided by our first responders is always there, when and if we need them to be. Most of us don’t really think about the actual physical dangers first responders face. And we certainly don’t often talk about how daily events take a mental health toll on them. We just know that when we call 911, they will respond.
But the mental health toll is great, and it has a significant impact on our emergency responders.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an estimated 30% of first responders develop conditions like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicidal thoughts, compared to 20% of the general population. Among these behavioral disorders, many first responders suffer from an alcohol use disorder (also known as an alcohol addiction). In a study about suicidality, firefighters were reported to have higher attempt and ideation rates than the general population. In law enforcement, the estimates suggest that between 125 and 300 police officers commit suicide every year.
I’m familiar with these risks on a personal level. My husband is a long-time firefighter, and I witness how the stress of being a first responder plays out for him and his crew. They see and experience things that most of us don’t want to even imagine. I often wonder how they have the emotional capacity to do it day after day.
We should all be thinking about this. How can our emergency responders keep us safe if they are suffering themselves? And how can we best support them when they need us, knowing that they are unlikely to ever ask for our help?
Knowing that these are hard questions to answer, we took our #tapculture Q&A for Mental Health Awareness Month to Nick Metz, now chief operating officer of Code-4 Counseling and founding board member of the Colorado Fallen Hero Foundation. Code-4 is a company that is “fiercely committed to supporting the people in our communities who serve and protect us each day.” Prior to this role, he served for a combined 36 years with the Seattle Police Department (WA) and the Aurora Police Department (CO).
Although we could have, we didn’t seek out Nick for commentary on past, recent or current controversies involving either agency. Instead, we sought his voice on first responders’ mental health and what can be done to make wellness a priority for them individually and collectively, for their families, and ultimately for our communities.
What is your background? What moments marked your career?
I went through the law enforcement training program in Minnesota, and my intention was to join the force in either Minneapolis or St. Paul. Both were going through hiring freezes at the time, so I went to Seattle with the plan that I would eventually return. Instead, I worked 30 years in the Seattle Police Department (SPD). I started my career as a patrol officer and went through the ranks. I worked through a number of different investigations, serving in undercover narcotics, then sergeant, lieutenant, and ultimately deputy chief. When I retired I was number two in the SPD.
I joined the SPD shortly after the Wah Mee Massacre, in which 13 people were killed in a gambling club, and I saw the effects this had on my colleagues and our community. In my first year, I experienced two line-of-duty deaths and one suicide of a coworker.
How did those experiences affect you?
Looking back now on things that I did and things that I experienced … today they would be recognized as signs I was struggling. I went through my own post-traumatic injuries because of those three incidents and didn’t realize till years later that was what I was experiencing. I remember having what could have been called anxiety attacks. We tend to think of PTSD giving someone recurring bad dreams, or that there are triggers that cause you to lose your temper. There are other experiences and other warning signs. It really depends on the individual person. The way I felt, when I look back on two fellow officers being killed, and one committing suicide, there were clear warning signs. But no one talked about that.
In 2009, there was a two-month period when the SPD and other nearby agencies saw a string of officer ambushes, line-of-duty deaths, and tragic accidents. For officers and families, they were struggling with the idea that officers had been ambushed simply because they were wearing the uniform. That was really hard on the officers and their families. It hit me that not only were our officers really suffering during this time—they were mourning, being concerned about their safety—but that their families were also really, really scared. And officers bring their home lives into work, which then means the potential of having negative interactions with the public, not being as alert to potential dangers. That began the journey of our agency focusing more on wellness.
We created a wellness unit with two officers who were specially trained and culturally competent psychologists who understood what officers go through and could appreciate the stressors that they experience. I also helped to form an organization called Behind the Badge, which helped plan memorial services, take care of families, and take care of other officers in the agency after an officer death.
After 30 years in Seattle, I retired, then moved to Aurora. I arrived when the theater shooting trial was starting. Right away, I met a lot of officers who responded that night, and I met with survivors or with family members of survivors. In the five years I spent in Aurora, I involved myself in a lot of issues around mental health. I also helped create the Colorado Fallen Hero Foundation.
What is the key ingredient for an effective mental health response program for first responders?
In my experience in Seattle and Aurora, we first had to overcome the stigma issue. If you really want your folks to get the help they need, and not feel stigma, you really need to send a strong message of support. You need organizational leaders being willing to be vulnerable and tell their own stories about when they struggled. I’ve seen chiefs talk about alcohol abuse, feeling suicidal, and struggling with relationship challenges. But it can’t be just chiefs. It has to be sergeants and on up, plus informal leaders. When officers can see that they’re not alone and that other people have been through it, that people are sincerely committed to it, you can create a culture of wellness. It’s not just about eating right and sleeping well.
Tell us about some of the other necessary components.
We spend a lot of time making sure officers know how to talk to people, write reports, shoot. We also have to spend the time and money to make sure they’re mentally and emotionally healthy. And whatever we put together, we have to make sure it’s more than a checkbox. We’re fortunate in Colorado that law enforcement agencies have access to funding for providing mental health services. A lot of other states do not do that. Some key pieces:
- Robust, involved and full-time peer support team. These are people within the agency who have been specially trained and may have experienced critical incidents themselves. First-responder-to-first-responder support is really critical.
- Contracts with culturally competent psychological services. We’ve seen over the years where generalists will try to work with police officers. They don’t understand the culture. It’s necessary to have people who understand the realm of policing.
- Ongoing trainings on different issues. Whether it’s PTSD, managing struggles at home, substance use, we give officers information to spot these issues in themselves and in their families so they know when to seek help.
- Cross-discipline outreach. We engage everyone, civilian and sworn, to make sure that police officers, CSI, dispatchers, etc., all know how to get help.
- Family involvement. In Aurora, we really amped up the family outreach. We found out that a lot of officer families didn’t know each other. If there were a crisis of some kind, we wanted families to know each other, and know that there was help available to them.
Why is mental health support different at different agencies?
We live in a country with 18,000 different police agencies, all of differing sizes and scopes, and so we have 18,000 different approaches to many aspects of policing. As a country, we need to do a better job of creating an umbrella … more consistency.
A lot of agencies are seeing officers leaving in large numbers right now. Some of that’s retirement. Some of that’s officers not feeling supported in their communities or making decisions to protect the well-being of their families. We as a profession need to do a better job of educating the general public that there’s more to policing than the physical risks.
Tell us about how the Colorado Fallen Hero Foundation was involved in responding to the grocery store shooting in Boulder in March.
We responded to the Boulder incident the night that it happened. We provided assistance to the responders and the planning team for the memorial and the medical examiners’ office. We were also on site with our therapy dogs, Daisy and Elton, who brought a great deal of comfort to survivors and their families in that difficult time. As sad as it was that Officer Talley was killed, we were happy to see that the community came out and wanted to support his family and support the agency. Our work is not just about planning the memorial, although that is a big part, but also about mental health support to other officers directly impacted, family members, and the community.
Vladimir Jones is Colorado’s original independent, integrated advertising agency, with offices in Denver and Colorado Springs. We believe in brilliant brands and love making the world love them as much as we do.