Stigma, Shame & First Responders

My mental health and legislative worlds frequently come together, but an article and what happened yesterday really made me blink.

First, the good news. At a hearing yesterday, the Pennsylvania House Veterans Affairs & Emergency Preparedness committee moved a bill of mine. HB1459 would give first responders more mental health resources. It would require trauma and mental health training, create a peer to peer mentorship program and mandate the creation of a toll-free hotline for first responders who are struggling with mental health issues.

I feel like legislation like this is more important then ever. Why? Stories like this, which report on the NYPD’s ongoing mental health and suicide crisis, and the unwillingness of some police officers to seek mental health help, despite the fact that they feel the need to do so:

In a new report, the Department of Investigation’s Office of the Inspector General surveyed officers who retired in 2016 and found that 25 percent of them reported going through a period of emotional stress, trauma or substance abuse that caused them to consider getting professional help.

But more than a third of those officers did not end up seeking assistance, according to the report.

Half of them expressed fear that the department would find out about their decision to seek support.

So, what do we do here?

First, there are internal things that I think the NYPD can do. Chief among them? Work to change the culture and attack stigma by sharing stories of successful police officers who have experienced mental illness, sought help, and thrived.

Furthermore, the NYPD must do whatever it can to stress the confidential nature of their programs. According to the report, 50% of people surveyed were worried about the department finding out about their illnesses, 45% of negative labels, and 39% afraid of being put on a modified assignment. As the NYPD notes, an “extremely small number” of officers do wind up having their weapons taken away, but they are given those back upon successful treatment. Treatment is confidential, except in cases where the officer in question may present a danger to themselves or others.

The second is broader: We need cultural change at a society wide level. When we discuss the importance of stigma when it comes to mental health, this is why. Stigma is more than just how people look at the mental ill, its how we look at mental illness within ourselves. Clearly, as cases like this demonstrate, a culture of machismo and an overabundance of self-reliance can kill. For reasons like this, we clearly must do a better job of reminding people that there is no shame in seeking help, and that in many cases, its the only way to lead a happy, healthy and productive life.