How departments are helping cops, first responders cope with line of duty stress

"Cops are going to see the worst of what the world has to offer, and deal with that," the director of a police peer support group said


By Paul Liotta
Staten Island Advance

STATEN ISLAND, NY — Cops, firefighters, and EMTs have some of New York City's most grueling jobs.

The constant barrage of death, violence and destruction can affect the mental health of the men and women who perform these jobs, and people across the country are trying to find ways to help them. 

In the most dire situations, those stressors can turn inward, and lead to self harm. Staten Island experienced the deaths by apparent suicide of two police officers in early 2017.

Officers Ralph Conde, 33, and Yong Yun, 31, of the 121st and 120th precincts, respectively, both died in January of apparent self-inflicted gunshot wounds.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said at the time that he was "very concerned" about the deaths that occurred in such quick succession.

"The folks who protect us and serve us go through tons of stress, some that you can see and some that you can't even see because it's deep inside them, and we have to support them," he said. 

Data on the number of suicides among first responders is hard to come by. A 2016 report from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reviewed the number of suicides in 2012 by occupational group in 17 states.

Researchers found the highest suicide rates among three occupational groups -- farming, fishing and forestry; construction and extraction; and installation, maintenance, and repair -- none of which encompass first responders.

However, the review noted prior research "suggested that higher suicide rates among police are related to stressors, including exposure to traumatic, violent and lethal situations, work overload, shift work and access to lethal means."

It also found the highest suicide rates for women occurred among those in "protective service occupations," which include law enforcement officers and firefighters.

Capt. Frank Leto, deputy director for the FDNY Counseling Service Unit (CSU), said members of the FDNY are a resilient group, but noted that research showed higher rates of depression, PTSD and substance abuse among first responders.

"Firefighters and EMTs every day see things that most people don't experience in a lifetime," he said. "Over time, that starts to take its toll. It could be a car accident, a fire, a pediatric death, the suicide of a civilian. We respond to incidents like this every single day."

He said he was unaware of data showing higher rates of suicide among first responders. There is "a lot of talk about it," and some of the risk factors associated with suicide are present among first responders, Leto said.

Active and retired members of the FDNY experiencing those risk factors can turn to the CSU 24/7, but Leto said many departments across the country do not have access to the same kinds of resources.

"Departments across the country look to us as a gold standard when it comes to behavioral health programs," he said.

Like the FDNY, the NYPD is aware of the challenges its officers face on a daily basis, and what it can do to their mental health.

The Police Department offers a number of services to both its retired and active-duty members, who may be experiencing mental health issues. A 24/7 employee assistance unit is available, staffed by both uniformed and civilian active duty members.

There is also the Police Organization Providing Peer Assistance (POPPA), which was founded in 1996, originally for suicide intervention after the NYPD saw 26 suicides in 1994 and 1995 collectively.

It has the recognition and support of the department, but is not directly a part of it.

John Petrullo, the director of POPPA and a retired cop, said the organization uses a peer-to-peer method to help active-duty and retired officers get  the help they need.

"Members of the service, unlike the general public, have an added amount of stress due to the profession that they chose," he said.

POPPA has separate lines for active-duty and retired officers that can be called 24/7. They have officers who call about things like stress, relationship problems or alcohol abuse.

It is staffed entirely by volunteers, who either work or have worked as police officers, something Petrullo believes helps cops speak more openly about their problems.

"Cops are going to see the worst of what the world has to offer, and deal with that," Petrullo said. "It's part of the culture where the average person doesn't understand what it's like to possibly see the things that, if a civilian saw them once, they might be running to the psychiatrist for 10 years."

Some of the biggest challenges these organizations face is the stigma associated with mental health in the first responder professions.

"People who do this kind of work usually have this bravado that they don't need help and they don't need support," Leto said. "But we here at the FDNY say it's a sign of courage to step forward when you're struggling."

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