Just because you wear a shield and serve and protect doesn’t make you immune to mental health issues, and more than ever, police unions are evaluating our approaches to this emerging crisis and realizing that we as a society need to do better.

The alarms are ringing, as is evident right here in Suffolk County, as we experienced the tragic loss of four law enforcement officers to suicide within the past two months.

According to available data, suicide rates are a staggering 54% higher among law enforcement personnel than the general population, while even more officers suffer from PTSD caused by violence encountered on the job.

The Suffolk County PBA has an established Providing Enforcers Education and Resources (PEER) Team whose mission is to provide law enforcement personnel and their families with the necessary education and resources to maintain a healthy and productive lifestyle. The team is made up of PBA members with the desire to support their peers during times of need. These extraordinary individuals volunteer their own time to provide their colleagues with an open ear or a shoulder to lean on. In many situations, PEER Team members effectively give advice and assist colleagues in getting through difficult times.

Peer teams in other professions have been effective tools to help individuals in distress. They’ve also been effective at helping to destigmatize seeking mental health treatment.

Even the toughest guys and gals have bad days, whether it’s dealing with personal issues at home, the stress of the job, overcoming trauma, or any of the other thousand things we do that can strain our mental health.

There is often a hesitation to talk about mental health struggles with a supervisor because of a fear of career repercussions. The PBA PEER Team alleviates that fear by having members connect with officers of the same rank. Many people, especially police officers, feel more comfortable talking about the issues they are battling with peers who have similar experiences. When members seek help, if appropriate, we can refer them to a psychologist who specializes in working with police officers.

Our mental struggles are not always relatable to non-law enforcement officers, so having a doctor available who has worked with police officers for decades is extremely valuable.

Police officers experience a variety of situations that can be difficult to deal with on their own, irrespective of life’s daily curve balls. Some officers might continually relive and replay a dangerous incident that occurred on the job. We are regularly helping people during their worst times, often dealing with scenarios when people are not behaving with their kindest intentions. Over time, this can be difficult to cope with.
Some police officers experience one horrific scene and it can change their outlook on life in an instant. Some police officers experience multiple horrific scenes such as responding to the death of a child in a car accident or responding to a murder scene, and stress becomes cumulative sneaking up on you and pushing you over the edge.

For some police officers, it’s the stress that comes with working through holidays, weekends, and birthdays, and missing out on memories with our families. It’s not always easy for our loved ones to accept that we can’t be around to share in these exciting moments.
When our family struggles to understand, it can be more difficult to deal with our struggles. These kinds of struggles often compound themselves, and they can devolve into a depletion of physical health. Difficulty sleeping, bad eating habits, or increased alcohol consumption often accompany mental health issues along with the development of anxiety or depression.

In Suffolk County, we know we can do more for the mental health of our police officers. County Executive Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches) has always been a strong supporter of law enforcement, and we are working to create a comprehensive plan to address wellness and mental health. Ideas include utilizing our existing PEER Team in a greater capacity but also adding additional resources and incentives to break the stigma surrounding treatment. Officers must trust that seeking help will not harm their careers or their ability to provide for their families. While having a volunteer PEER team has been beneficial, we need police officers whose full-time job will be mental health counseling.

Education must also be a cornerstone of our plan. Suicide prevention and awareness training coupled with other modern techniques and services are a vital tool to improve public safety and protect our officers. Studies have shown that poor mental health often negatively affects work habits. Working together to improve mental health and peer programs will strengthen our police department.

The Suffolk PBA strongly supports legislation to fund and create a training program to enhance resources available for peer-to-peer volunteer teams. We are collaborating with other unions and county elected officials to address this crisis. We need to lobby for statewide assistance to improve funding and resources for mental health.

We cannot afford to do nothing; our officers’ lives depend on what we do next.

Louis Civello is the president of the Suffolk County Police Benevolent Assoiation.
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