Massachusetts legislators address law enforcement mental health issues

By Phyllis Hanlon
July 9th, 2021

Almost every occupation carries some degree of risk to physical and mental health. But for those in law enforcement, the chances of suffering from both are significantly higher.

A 2020 survey of 1,355 active-duty law enforcement officers revealed that between seven and 35 percent suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is nine to 10 times greater than seen in the general population.

Additionally, 29 percent of the sample reported moderate to severe anxiety, which is two times greater than in the general population; and 37 percent of the sample had moderate to severe depression, five times more than in the general population.

According to the International Association of Police Chiefs (IACP), risk factors that include anxiety, depression and other mental health diagnoses, may lead to suicide. The IACP adds that more law enforcement officers die by suicide than in the line of duty.

Recognizing the significance of the problem, some Massachusetts legislators have filed bills that support mental wellness training for the law enforcement community.

Three years ago, Senator Michael O. Moore (D-Millbury) helped to pass legislation that would create the position of confidential crisis counselor for police officers who had PTSD. At the time, the Municipal Police Training Committee conducted the training.

More recently, as part of the Police Reform Bill, he recommended the Municipal Police Training Committee develop a course on mental wellness and suicide prevention.

Moore noted that in the current social climate, police officers experience more anxiety than in the past when they receive a call. These officers must, at times, make split-second decisions and face increased scrutiny, especially if violence is involved, he said.

Additionally, law enforcement officers witness a variety of traumatic incidents throughout the workday from fatal car accidents and the death of a child to domestic violence and serious crime, including murder.

Moore believes that providing mental health services that enable police to effectively deal with any adverse reactions caused by these events can be very helpful. Without an outlet, problems, including alcohol abuse, divorce and suicide, may develop. “We should make available to law enforcement as many services as we have available,” Moore said.

Also concerned about mental health in law enforcement, particularly PTSD, Representative Peter Durant (R-Spencer) filed a measure to create a commission aimed at identifying, preventing, and treating PTSD.

Durant explained that this commission would include individuals from various backgrounds, including first responders and mental health professionals, who would be appointed by the governor, Senate president and speaker of the house.

Durant reported that the commission would be responsible for creating a process for identifying officers who are experiencing mental health problems. The commission would then recommend what type of program might be most effective. “[The commission] would have broad latitude to give us the findings,” he said, which might include legislation, state level programming, or some other option.

The commission will collect data and assemble the facts, according to Durant. “They don’t make laws or create programs,” he said. “Legislation would be the first slow step to addressing the problem.”

Durant’s interest in the law enforcement officers’ mental health stems from personal experience. He said that a close cousin had served on the local police force for 20 years. During her career, she experienced PTSD and left the profession as a result. “She was brought to the point where she couldn’t mentally handle the job,” he said.

Durant pointed out that law enforcement is, for the most part, a male dominated profession, which does not like to show vulnerability. He acknowledged that stigma continues to be a barrier for many officers.

However, all officers, regardless of gender, need to know they can seek help when necessary. Durant pointed out that mental health issues are a clinical diagnosis and should be addressed as such.

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