Central Mass. lawmakers file bills supporting police mental wellness

police car at street
Police reform measures are proposed in the Massachusetts Senate. Photo by Matt Popovich/Wikimedia Commons

By Ariane Vigna
Boston University News Service

BOSTON — Concerns about the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder on police officers and the need to provide mental wellness training are the focus of legislation filed by two Central Massachusetts lawmakers.

A measure filed by Rep. Peter Durant, R-Spencer, would create a commission to review causes of PTSD, identify its estimated prevalence among police officers, and make recommendations on the specific programs that are most effective to prevent and treat PTSD.

Durant said he filed the bill because one of his relatives was a police officer who struggled with PTSD.

“We tend to recognize and identify that PTSD occurs in our military, but we don’t recognize how much it occurs in our police force,” Durant said. “I think it’s important as a society to understand what they face; during riots, when you have people throwing things at you and screaming at you, that’s stressful.”

Sen. Michael Moore, D-Millbury, recommends that the Municipal Police Training Committee develop and establish a course for regional and municipal police training schools on mental wellness and suicide prevention.

“Imagine all the tragedies you see as a police officer,” Moore said. “Car accidents, domestic violence, sexual assault, murders — these are situations that many of us don’t see in our whole lifetime. It’s a lot to go home with.”

Mark Leahy, executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, said that mental health resources are traditionally welcomed by officers.

“It’s very much appreciated and wonderful for the health and welfare of our officers,” Leahy said. “We are far from immune to PTSD issues. All first responders see things that many people will never see in their lifetime and I think any way that we can keep them mentally whole is a wonderful thing.”

Mental health initiatives are often appreciated within officer communities.

“These initiatives are traditionally very well received,” Leahy said. “We don’t have empty seats in classes about mental health and wellbeing.”

Moore said he and other senators have led efforts to destigmatize mental health services over the last four years, including through a 2018 bill guaranteeing confidentiality for police crisis counseling.

“People think they have no one to turn to,” Moore said. “We’ve got to educate them and provide services, so they understand they’re not alone. Everyone deals with stress in different ways. Seeking help shouldn’t be stressful.”

According to data released by Blue H.E.L.P., a national organization that tracks police officer suicides, 228 American police officers died by suicide in 2019, up from 172 in 2018.

Moore said officers need better access to mental health care because they often turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms, including substance abuse, to deal with traumatic events they face on the job.

The course envisioned by Moore is two hours of total instruction to teach officers how to utilize healthy coping skills to manage the stress and trauma of policing. It also teaches individuals to recognize the symptoms of PTSD and suicidal behavior within themselves and other officers.

Moore said that providing mental wellness training would allow officers to perform their duties better and may help reduce police violence.

“With better education for officers comes better services for the public,” Moore said. “If an officer is thinking about the domestic violence call they just responded to ,or if they’re dealing with a traumatic situation, their response may not be the best. They may conduct themselves in an inappropriate manner.”

By teaching individuals about their mental health, Moore says officers will likely become more self-aware.

“You have to explain to them the positive advantages for their quality of life,” he added. “If they’re dealing with mental health issues and not realizing it, their interaction with their family or the general public may not be as positive as they think it is. They may not realize the harm they’re doing to themselves.”

Leahy said that mental health services were especially necessary now because officers around the state have quit or retired following protesters’ calls for defunding or abolishing the police last summer.

Leahy said officers were distressed by generalizations made about the profession.

“It was utterly demoralizing for people who came on this job to try to make a difference and have now internalized a lot of things,” Leahy said. “We’ve seen a sharp increase in people walking away or retiring from the job.”

This article was previously published in the Telegram & Gazette

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