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Can We Erase the Stigma of Mental Health Struggles in Law Enforcement?

A Mental Health Professional Weighs In

Eighteen years ago, when James Rascati began working with law enforcement as a clinical social worker, he learned one thing almost immediately about the men and women he counseled. It was that an officer’s job does not just impact them, it also impacts their families. It is with this understanding that his company - Behavioral Health Consultants, LLC in Hamden, Connecticut - includes mental health services for the family members of both the police officers and firefighters they counsel.

Rascati readily acknowledges the problem in getting families to seek help: They cannot contact the families directly. This means they need the officers and their departments to tell the families these services even exist for them. The problem with that? They need for the officers to seek and accept help first. And the only way to do it, is by removing the stigma of mental health struggles.

When considering the decades worth of stigma in a profession dominated by shows of strength - both physical and mental - the task has proven to be an almost Herculean undertaking. While even though great strides have been made over the years in the general population's attitude toward mental health, law enforcement is far behind in acceptance within their own ranks.

Any good LEO will tell you: Their reputation is everything. Therefore, anything that could be perceived as weakness or incompetency could be reputation destroying, and even career ending. Most officers would say that if they showed any signs of vulnerability, it would make their fellow officers - and their superiors - deem them unsafe, and therefore untrustworthy. The obvious result is that officers choose to suffer in silence rather than admit they need help.

The great and tragic irony is - given what LEOs deal with as part of the job: suicides, murders, rapes, crimes against children, graphic accidents, violence, depravity, and so on - they are by matter of course in the most need of continuous mental health care.

What is intriguing is that police officers are exposed to potentially traumatic incidents and extreme stress over the course of their career; that is, 30 to 35 years on average. Furthermore, a uniformed police psychologist with the New York City Police Department, estimated that police officers might be exposed to at least 900 potentially traumatic incidents over the course of their career. - Journal of Police Emergency Response

There is a light in the darkness, though. Great strides are being made, thanks to the bravery of longtime LEOs like Stephen and his wife Krystina, who chose to share their story of Stephen's mental health struggles and the surprising effect his seeking help had on their lives and his career.

In a recent interview on The Blue Family Show, Rascati detailed a highly successful approach he and many other use across the country to combat the stigma.

When I respond to a major critical incident for first responders... here's what I generally say to people: I know your culture enough to know many of you are gonna go out after your shift ends, [you're] gonna have a few drinks. I'm not gonna tell you not to drink with your buddies. What I am going to tell you is don't get sh*tfaced. Don't drink more than you normally do. It is not going to help you process that event. So, here the value of peer support is. I could understand why a cop may not want to talk to me. I have two strikes against me: one I'm a mental health professional, and two, I'm not a cop. And I get that. I really do. But you have to talk. So, we created our first Peer Team. It was in New Haven, our first Police Department was 18 years ago . The reason we created peer support was the departments least likely to EAP services - as you would guess - are police and fire departments. And yet when you look at the epidemiology of first responders, higher rates of divorce, higher rates of stress -both acute stress and PTSD - higher rates of depression and suicide, higher rates of substance abuse. So... I'm scratching my head, how can this be? How can these two departments do so much for our community, and not make use of these services? So we created our first peer support team about 17 years ago and we now have about 42 police teams that we've trained and developed.

While it may be a long time before the stigma is ever fully erased, services like the one James Rascati offers - and those like his across the country - are a positive step forward in helping our first responders, who so duly deserve the support. Watch or listen to the full interview with James Rascati. If you are part of the first responder family in Connecticut, and would like to speak to James, click HERE.

Please consider contributing to the REfund the Police nationwide campaign created by Law Enforcement Today. See details below.

Elsa Kurt is a multi-genre author, speaker & brand creator of Blue Family Apparel & Igoodhuman, as well as the producer & host of the Blue Family Unity Show on Right America Media. Her book, Welcome to the Family (Life Behind the Thin Blue Line) has been called the "must have survival guide for new LEO spouses."


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