Law enforcement groups urge mental health awareness amid coronavirus

Experts say police officers may face lasting trauma.

May 15, 2020, 9:34 AM

Officer Charles "Rob" Roberts, a 20-year veteran of the Glen Ridge Police Department in New Jersey, died from COVID-19 on Monday.

The department says Roberts contracted the virus in April while on the job. After nearly three weeks in the hospital, he became one of the latest officers of more than 100 to die from COVID-19, according to an analysis of reported coronavirus deaths compiled by the Fraternal Order of Police.

Experts say police officers not only have to deal with death in their ranks but also the lasting trauma from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Tom Coghlan, a former NYPD psychologist, told ABC News that policing during the pandemic is "emotionally taxing" on officers in the field and that much like 9/11, trauma for law enforcement officers from the COVID-19 crisis won't hit until well after the pandemic is over.

"We saw an uptick in suicides and an emotional treatment needs, not in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. It was a year to 18 months after that. You started to see the uptick in suicides and the uptick in emotional troubles," he said.

PHOTO: Houston Police cadets wear masks as they prepare to have their class photo taken during a graduation ceremony at the Houston Police Academy, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Friday, May 1, 2020, in Houston.
Houston Police cadets wear masks as they prepare to have their class photo taken during a graduation ceremony at the Houston Police Academy, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Friday, May 1, 2020, in Houston.
David J. Phillip/AP Photo

What differentiates this crisis, Coghlan said, is that the impacts are global.

"I think what you're going to see is a year to 18 months after this hits its apex. I think that that's when you're going to start to see the real uptick in emotional needs. And then hopefully not potentially suicides," he said.

Steve Casstevens, the head of the International Association of Chiefs of Police told ABC News that police officers have a lot to deal with during COVID-19.

"I think you're going to see ... the same because we are trained professionals that need to respond to the call, fix a problem, respond to the next call, fix a problem, respond to the next call and fix a problem. Then we have to go home and fix our problems at home. And then we do it over and over again," Casstevens said. "We don't have time to just sit back and reflect on the dangers of the day."

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Casstevens, who is also the police chief in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, stressed that it is "absolutely critical" for police departments to provide multiple avenues for an officer to seek help.

"That sometimes means, simply talking to your police chaplain, because some people are more comfortable talking to a faith-based person or you must have a peer support group established in your department because some officers don't want to talk to the chaplain, but they're more comfortable talking to one of their peers or a third avenue," he said

He said that those options come from the top — from courageous chiefs and executive staff.

Law enforcement groups say the continued toll of the novel coronavirus especially hits home for the law enforcement community now because it is Police Week, an annual gathering of law enforcement officials that usually takes place in Washington, D.C., and honors fallen officers.

Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) a former police chief, spearheaded the Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act, which was signed into law in 2018. The bill provides resources to address mental health challenges faced by members of law enforcement.

"Law enforcement officers risk their lives every day to keep us safe, but now every encounter potentially carries the risk of infection," Demings said. "And even as they worry about keeping their communities safe, they, like all of us, are also worried about the health and safety of their families. We have a responsibility to keep our officers safe from both the physical and mental dangers of the job. That means providing the training, personal protective equipment, counseling, and support that they need."

The emphasis from law enforcement groups now more than ever is mental health.

The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association Foundation said it is asking all of its chapters and lodges to perform a virtual roll call to check in with their members on sick leave.

"Camaraderie can be chicken soup for an officer's soul, and that is why I am asking our great national law enforcement organizations to initiate virtual rolls calls of their sick members. This proactive initiative would add to the mental health services law enforcement is offering," Jon Adler, a former Justice Department official and president of FLEOA, said in a release.

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In an effort to boost morale during the pandemic, Blue Help, a nonprofit group that tracks law enforcement suicides, asked departments what they needed most — and they responded that they needed PPE and coffee, so along with their partners, Blue Help sent coffee and gloves to police departments in 49 states.

"During this pandemic, officers find themselves under more pressure than ever before," Nick Greco, a Blue HELP board member, told ABC News. "Not only are they dealing with an unknown, unseen enemy, but the daily stress of the job itself. Now more than ever, officer mental health and wellness must be a priority. Officers should utilize their peer support programs, EAP [emergency assistance program], or seek out counseling from private providers. Reducing stress and anxiety is a challenge that can be dealt with through eating healthy, drinking more water, taking walks or even simply getting fresh air during a shift to clear one's mind."

Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum told ABC News that many first responders will need support.

"There's no question that police officers, health workers, ambulance drivers are being subjected to enormous trauma, which really underscores the importance of providing them with mental health support in the days and years ahead," he told ABC News.

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