The police culture in New Mexico is changing. The days of officers drinking quietly to drown out their trauma after a particularly horrific day on the job are fast receding. Peer support and mental health resources are at the forefront of this change.
Discussions about the mental health of officers have become more frequent in recent years, and the data is startling. The 2008 Buffalo Cardio-Metabolic Occupational Police Stress (BCOPS) study found that 23% of male and 25% of female police officers reported more suicidal thoughts than the general population (13.5%). In a previous study, suicide rates were three times higher among police than among other municipal workers, researchers found. (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/09/080926105029.htm)
And PoliceChief magazine analyzed various sources to find that in 2019 more officers in the United States died by suicide than in the line of duty. (https://www.policechiefmagazine.org/the-le-suicide-data-collection/)
The Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act was passed by Congress in 2017. It provided funding for the Department of Justice to publish case studies of programs designed primarily to address health and psychological well-being of officers.
The shift in national attention to officer welfare reflects efforts within the state.
What is vicarious trauma?
Acting director of the Law Enforcement Academy Benjamin Baker said that when talking about the trauma faced by first responders, it’s more than just trauma related to a single incident.
“I’ve often described some of the work I’ve done over the years as a constant stream of vicarious trauma,” Baker said in an interview. “Based on the things you see, the things you feel, the things you experience, that repetitive nature and the need for power (especially in law enforcement) to push those things into a space so you can keep moving forward. seems to have a cumulative and aggravating effect on people’s well-being.
Baker is talking about something officers and other first responders have known for years. Being close to trauma or being involved in traumatic situations day in and day out can leave deep scars.
It’s not just frontline workers who see the impact of trauma on their own lives.
Baker, who previously led the Internet Crimes Against Children division of the New Mexico attorney general’s office, said even the process of investigating such crimes can harm the mental health of investigators.
“There is no safe space in and around these traumatic events,” Baker said. “For the purposes of mental well-being, you regularly experience things. By proxy, I’ve been through a lot during my time supervising people who carry out Internet crimes against children in child pornography and child exploitation investigations.
Baker is open about the trauma he has endured during his long career in law enforcement and he said he is opening up for a reason. In his current role at the LEA, he uses his experience teaching officers attending the police academy for the first time, or those taking a refresher certification course, to help new officers understand the importance to ask for help.
“I visited each of our classes,” Baker said. “I share with them, in a very intimate way, my experiences… with the aim of hopefully creating an environment that is not only fertile for us to continue to evolve and do better. Most importantly, however, it can contribute positively to a police officer’s well-being and not go down one of those roads we talked about earlier regarding substances, addiction, suicide, and conflict.
Baker’s hope is that by reaching out to every class, he can quickly reach departments across the state. Comprised of cadets sent from smaller agencies, each class offers the opportunity to ameliorate the stigma around seeking mental health treatment. By standing up and sharing her personal story, Baker hopes to reduce that stigma.
Change the culture
New Mexico State Police Sgt. Janice Madrid is the commander of the Crisis Negotiation Team, Peer Support Team (POST), and Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT) for the state police. His work focuses on the mental health of officers.
“I think a lot of people don’t see the day-to-day operations that a law enforcement officer would go through,” Madrid said. “The New Mexico State Police is a very large department. We have several areas [in which] agents can experience different things in the course of their duties.
Madrid used changes in stress levels during the day for the many NMSP patrollers as an example of hidden stressors.
“They operate between extremely high stress levels and low stress levels. They could do a traffic stop, where they talk to an elderly person and it could be a low-stress encounter,” she said. “Their next call for service may be a servant [violence incident] going on, or someone was shot or injured…so their stress levels fluctuate.
Police found that a peer support team, made up of fellow officers who shared their law enforcement experience, helped reach officers who would otherwise be uncomfortable asking help.
“We use an officer peer support team to mitigate the adverse effects of critical incidents, such as duty events, personal events, staff events, confidential structured meetings, informal meetings; and we do it after major events, critical incidents,” Madrid said.
The CIT and POST teams intervene in all kinds of situations, including as family relays in stressful situations.
“Currently we are rolling out a mobile app,” Madrid said. The app will allow NMSP officers to seek help with everything from drug addiction and suicidal ideation to divorce and personal struggles.
“It’s completely confidential,” Madrid said. “None of their personal information is retained.”
Madrid says the new app simply builds on what is already an evolving culture and proactive approach to officer wellbeing. Whenever an officer needs help, the Madrid team is activated.
“Either I am informed of an event that has occurred, or if an officer in a specific district is going through personal issues or struggling with something he may have seen or been involved in,” he said. said Madrid. “I would then in turn deploy a member of the POST team. I would identify someone in this district, then deploy them.
Madrid noted that ultimately it’s up to each officer in need to accept the help offered, but she sees the culture changing.
“I think we’re going in the right direction in terms of educating our officers about what they could go through or experience with different types of events,” Madrid said. “We provide our officers with the basic skills to intervene with people who have mental health problems, as well as to provide them with the help they may need at some point in their career, whether it is today. today, tomorrow, or if it’s ten years from now.
New Mexico’s first annual Public Safety Resilience Summit is scheduled for October. Baker said the LEA will take a proactive role in the summit, which is hosted by the Public Safety Psychology Group led by Dr. Troy Rodgers, a prominent state police psychologist. The summit will focus on vicarious trauma, overcoming life-threatening injuries, PTSD, suicide and active wellness, including meditation and yoga.
“The goals are to proactively care and roundtable, discuss, train and learn things related to suicide prevention, as well as mental health and wellness awareness for professionals public safety,” Baker said.