Recognize and address stress cops face

Law enforcement is difficult, emotionally draining and often thankless work. Yet experience shows police officers are typically reluctant to acknowledge the mental toll it takes on them.

Police officers must project a tough image. They are the enforcers of our laws. Confrontation is part of the job. The stereotype of the hard-bitten cop - immune to the emotions of an angry domestic dispute to which they must respond, unmoved by the horrors of a crime or accident scene - is deeply ingrained in culture, even in the culture of the profession itself.

It can be hard for a police officer to admit he (or she) is human and to seek help for the mental and emotional toll the experiences of the job are inflicting. Without help stress builds, the family life of the officer can suffer, and mental health issues go undiagnosed and unaddressed.

Sometimes the police officer turns to suicide to end the internal anguish. Day Staff Writer Izaskun E. Larraneta explored that too-frequent outcome in her May 11 story in The Day about the June 2011 suicide of City of Groton Police Lt. Thomas Forbes ("Living with stress until he couldn't"). It is available on theday.com.

Making the telling of the tragic story about Lt. Forbes possible is the courage of his adult daughter, Lauren Forbes, who is willing to talk about a topic - suicide - most people shy from. Her meritorious motive is to bring about change, both in the personal perspective officers have of themselves and in department policies, so that others do not embrace death in their despondency.

Ms. Forbes only learned after her father's death, by a self-inflicted gunshot, that he was trying to get an appointment with a therapist, but for reasons that are not clear, it never happened. One lesson learned is that police administrations must make it clear where officers can go to safely, and confidentially, get the help they need. Addressing mental health issues should not be stressed as something that is OK to do, but rather something that should be done if the officer has the need.

Municipalities offer Employee Assistance Programs, but they do no good if employees do not avail themselves of them.

Ms. Forbes told our reporter that in addition to dealing with the stress of police work, also troubling her father, a 31-year veteran, was strife within the department between management and rank-and-file officers. Striving to maintain a healthy work environment is important in any vocation, but critical in a police department, where internal pressure can aggravate the stress officers face on the job.

Under debate in the state legislative session that just ended was a bill that would have allowed officers to access workers' compensation for absences resulting from "mental or emotional impairments" caused by witnessing a traumatic event or its aftermath. Proponents point to the emotional impact to first responders arriving at the massacre of schoolchildren and adult educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012 as an example of why the law is needed.

The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities opposed the proposal, and understandably. Given the nature of police work, such a change could generate a sharp spike in workers' compensation claims and in costs paid by towns and cities. The challenge is to narrow the interpretation of who would qualify, providing the compensation when called for but discouraging abuse. That's a tough challenge and a one reason why the effort to pass such legislation has failed in the past two sessions.

The group Badge of Life, which advocates for improving the ability of police departments to deal with the stress and mental health issues officers face, reports 126 cases of suicide by officers in 2012. Federal and state agencies don't keep records on police suicides. The number is probably higher.

Encouraging police officers to get the help they need and making sure it is available must be a priority for all communities. It starts with a public discussion. Lt. Forbes' daughter is pushing that conversation forward. Her dad would be proud.

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