I never imagined I'd be asked to write an article such as this. When I was promoted to Lieutenant at the end of 2018, I thought about how I could make a positive difference for the people newly under my command. One of the first things that came to mind was mental health and wellness.
I've been a national "Below 100" core trainer for over five years and I constantly reinforce the importance of safe driving, use of seatbelts, wearing of body armor, and avoiding complacency with our members.
This includes being a proper role model and leading by example.
The Division of State Police has numerous policies and training programs in place that reinforce these safety principles and has been very proactive in these areas.
The Division of State Police has also had an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for a very long time. Unfortunately, there is a stigma associated with utilizing the services of EAP. Police Officers do not want to be perceived as "weak" or "crazy." They don't want their co-workers questioning their reliability if things go south in the field.
A relatively new concern—especially in New York—are laws which require removal of weapons from someone with certain types of mental illness or someone who is deemed a potential threat to themselves or others. Can we honestly expect a police officer to seek help if he or she believes they may lose their ability to possess a firearm, and as such, their career, by doing so?
To further compound the problem, first line supervisors may be reluctant to make referrals to EAP even if they think one is warranted because they don't want to be "the bad guy" who "threw someone under the bus." Ironic? We are fortunate enough to work for an organization that provides and supports this incredible resource, but too few people are willing to use it.
We should all understand certain serious incidents can negatively affect the mental health and emotional wellness of our members. What often goes undetected is cumulative stress. While handling a variety of "routine" incidents may not have an immediate emotional impact, exposure to many of these incidents over time can significantly affect long term wellness.
While suicide is an extreme result of emotional stress and fatigue, it can manifest in many different ways which can negatively impact our member's lives.
Path to Wellness
So when should we be making referrals to EAP? Are there any objective criteria?
Personally, I was involved in two significant incidents as a Trooper and the difference in EAP involvement was stark.
In 2009, an academy classmate and coworker from my barracks was tragically killed in an on duty car crash. I responded to that scene as a collision reconstructionist. Honestly, if there was ever a time in my career I could've used EAP it was after processing that scene.
At the time, it wasn't the type of incident that anyone was thinking about EAP for. Maybe it was also partly because supervisors—as well as everyone else—were dealing with the same incident, the same grief, at the same time.
Almost two years later, I was involved in a shooting. The perpetrator died but none of our members were hurt. Despite my assertions that I was fine—which I was—I could not get EAP to leave me alone.
The difference was, this time it was the type of incident everyone was thinking about EAP for. So how do we do better?
In January 2019, with the enthusiastic support of my chain of command, I issued an order mandating first line supervisors to make EAP referrals for anyone under my command who responded to or was involved with specific incidents or events. Those criteria are:
- Critical incident
- Line of duty death in same station
- Assaulted on duty
- Unattended death involving a child
- Suspected homicide
- Suspected suicide
- Fatal motor vehicle crash
- Fatal aviation crash, Industrial or agricultural death
- Fire resulting in death
- Sexual offenses involving children
- Death notification, Subject of Level 3 or 4 personnel complaint
- Probationary member – subject of any personnel complaint
- Involuntary removal from a special detail or assignment
- Serious Injury to member (on or off duty)
- Serious illness of member (on or off duty)
- Exposure to communicable disease of member
- Serious injury or illness of immediate family member
- Death in immediate family of member
- Domestic Incident Involving a Member
- Suspected alcohol/substance abuse.
This list is not all-inclusive. If supervisors are in doubt, they are to make the notification and let the EAP coordinator decide whether or not to contact the member. Members are under no obligation to engage in a dialog or take advantage of resources available through EAP once they are contacted.
Our responsibility is to ensure these resources are readily and immediately available to our members. Whether they choose to engage or not is a decision which must be made by each Member individually without pressure or penalty from their chain of command.
Smashing the Stigma
There were some initial grumblings when the order was implemented, but it has since become the accepted norm in my Zone. I can only give generalities on the following because EAP is a strictly confidential program and therefore I am not informed of the specifics. There has been a significant increase in EAP referrals and many of them are choosing to engage in dialog with EAP. There is virtually no remaining stigma associated with being contacted by or talking to EAP since many are getting contacted on a semi-regular basis.
There have been a couple of unforeseen results as well. Often, a Trooper will get a call based on a specific incident such as a fatal crash. During the conversation, the Trooper will say they're fine in reference to the fatal crash, but will want to talk about an unrelated issue.
This conversation wouldn't have occurred if the referral wasn't made for the fatal crash.
Additionally, supervisors who are routinely in contact with the EAP coordinator to make referrals have been developing relationships with the coordinator and self-referring for unrelated events and situations.
Finally, acknowledging that correlation doesn't necessarily equate to causation, we saw a 16.3% reduction in sick leave usage in 2019 versus the same twelve-month period in 2018 prior to implementing the referral policy. While there is no way to definitively attribute the entire reduction to the policy, 16.3% is a pretty significant number.
The Superintendent of State Police and the Executive Committee have been instrumental in developing several initiatives aimed at improving our member's health and wellness. The Division of State Police organized and hosted the first ever Executive Summit on Mental Health and Wellness in November 2019 which was attended by nearly 300 police executives from around the state.
I presented on this EAP referral program at that summit and it has since been recommended for implementation state wide within the State Police.
The Division of State Police has also implemented suicide prevention training state wide and placed suicide prevention posters in all barracks and facilities in non-public areas.
It is inspiring to be a part of an organization which is committed to improving the health and wellness of our membership. It is my hope that sharing this information will help other organizations start or improve their own health and wellness programs.
After all, what good is all the training and equipment we have for protecting our peoples' physical health and safety if we don't make available every possible resource to protect their mental health as well?