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Law enforcement strives to address mental health before officers are on brink

PRESCOTT - When police officers or sheriff's deputies head off to work each day, they never know what they will encounter, or worse, whether they will return home to kiss their spouse and children again.

Day after day, law enforcement officers are called upon to move from routine duties, such as issuing traffic tickets or patrolling a neighborhood to facing a gun-wielding robber or handling a fatal car wreck.

At a workshop organized by the West Yavapai Guidance Clinic for Mental Health Awareness Month, retired Mesa Police training and crisis intervention officer Tom Gussie talked about the impact of post-traumatic stress and suicide within the law enforcement community. Gussie, who has dual master's degrees in trauma-focused counseling, is a state expert in this field and serves on the Arizona Suicide Prevention Coalition.

One of the biggest challenges in addressing the mental health of the law enforcement community is stigma, Gussie said.

"We don't take care of ourselves," Gussie said. "We don't want to be seen as weak."

Using the analogy of a weight lifter, Gussie said all of them require spotters. Individually, they do the heavy lifting, but their spotters are at the ready to keep them safe. Counselors are simply spotters who can help a police officer work through the struggles that are innate to the job, he said.

Part of what he teaches in his crisis training courses is the need for police to separate who they are with what they do, Gussie said.

"We become married to the job. The job becomes the mistress," Gussie said.

Statistically, Gussie said, police officers tend to either die within five years of retirement, or opt to take another law enforcement-related job.

National statistics indicate that last year 144 police officers committed suicide; nationally police officers are three to four times more likely to commit suicide than the general public, Gussie said.

In Arizona, law enforcement suicide rates in recent years are far better than other states - Phoenix had six suicides in 1990 - but just one is too many, Gussie said.

"Law enforcement as a whole has recognized that PTSD is very real, and is a very legitimate issue in law enforcement," Yavapai County Sheriff's Office Capt. David Rhodes said. "When you spend a lot of years in this business it takes a toll on people."

The state Legislature this session approved a bill that establishes a post-traumatic stress review board to do research and report back to Gov. Doug Ducey about efforts that might need to be undertaken.

Yavapai County Sheriff Scott Mascher was appointed to that board.

"We know PTSD can build up over time. It doesn't necessarily have to be attached to one traumatic event," said Rhodes, noting his department has a crisis incident stress management team that does mandatory debriefings after all traumatic incidents. "This business is tough. Everywhere you go, people expect you to have the answers. You see someone in uniform and the expectation is that you know, you understand, and that can wear you down."

More and more, law enforcement is providing resources to help prevent mental health crises, but for anything to work someone has to recognize that they, or someone they know, is in need "and say something," Rhodes said.

Prescott Police Chief Jerald Monahan said a key is "self-care."

"Police officers are in a position to see, sometimes, the worst of humanity, and see people in crisis situations, people who are hurt, bodies mangled in accidents," Monahan said. "And we know that it can have a cumulative effect on our officers."

The city offers an employee assistance program, and the Police Department has a mandatory physical training program intended not to just keep officers physically fit, but to reinforce a healthy lifestyle, he said.

Monahan said he endorses tips Gussie offered in the workshop, simple things that can make a big difference: eat right, maintain a life outside police work, including friendships with those other than other police officers, church, sports and family outings.

"All of these diffuse the negatives that our officers experience on a daily basis, and help them maintain their quality of life," Monahan said.

In a film at the end of Gussie's presentation, a police officer overdoses on painkillers. He calls 911 and is rescued. He later admits he didn't really want to die, he simply wanted "the pain" to stop.

With counseling, the officer was able to work through personal and work-related issues.

"He got a spotter," Gussie said.

Follow Nanci Hutson on Twitter @HutsonNanci. Reach her at 928-445-3333 ext. 2041, or 928-642-6809.

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