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Pa. police program focuses on officers’ mental health

“I hope the program saves lives,” said Chief Timothy Bremigen, a 27-year career officer

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By Marcia Moore
The Daily Item, Sunbury, Pa.

SUNBURY, Pa. — When a lone gunman shot 10 young girls, killing five, inside an Amish one-room schoolhouse in Lancaster County on Oct. 2, 2006, before killing himself, a group of trained police peers was ready to help their colleagues who responded to the traumatic scene.

“Every trooper that responded to that scene was contacted and we’ve followed up with them on anniversaries,” said Govan Martin, a retired state police officer who has been working with Access Employee Assistance Program providing peer support to officers for several years.

The National Alliance on Mental Health reported that one in four police officers had suicidal thoughts in 2019 and more officers die by suicide than on the job. The fear among many officers, according to the American Police Officers Alliance, is that they will not be able to perform their work duties if they are deemed mentally unhealthy.

Raising awareness of the mental health of police officers has been an increasing issue nationwide in recent years, but the Police Peer Support Program has been assisting Harrisburg-area law enforcement and their relatives for more than 25 years, providing an understanding and compassionate ear or a professional referral to help them cope with job and family stresses, substance dependency, burnout and other mental health issues.

Now the program is available to first responders in Snyder and Union counties.

At the suggestion of Shamokin Dam Police Chief Timothy Bremigen, Snyder County District Attorney Michael Piecuch began looking for peer support services to help Valley officers work through issues ranging from divorce to alcoholism to depression.

He found grants were available through the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services and applied.

Late last year, Snyder County was among 65 recipients nationwide that received a portion of $7 million in grants. The two-year, $109,000 grant awarded to the county was only one of two in Pennsylvania, along with the city of Philadelphia.

“I hope the program saves lives,” said Bremigen, a 27-year career officer.

Scott Rood, an East Pennsboro Township Police sergeant, has served as a peer in the Harrisburg area for 12 years and said he’s witnessed the program’s effectiveness in keeping officers connected, healthy and on the job.

“Most cops only live about five years past retirement due to the stress,” he said, adding that stresses facing law enforcement also affect spouses and children.

The peer program is designed to address those issues by providing assistance to the entire family. Rood said there’s been an increased understanding about mental health, not only of offenders, but the first responders who handle emergencies often involving them.

“In the past, we’ve had a lot of officers who did destructive things that ended their careers,” said Rood, a Mount Pleasant Mills resident. “Twenty years ago it was normal after your shift to go to the bar. Now, it’s more normal to talk about the crash you went to where a kid has died.”

He recalled one incident involving an EMT responding to a report of a man who had injured his arm. The injury was much more gruesome and serious than expected, Rood said, and about a week later the EMT required medical assistance due to suicidal thoughts stemming from the incident.

Had the program been available to that first-responder, he said, the need for medical intervention may have been avoided.

By providing a confidential service where law enforcement can talk about the issues they face, the work or home-life stresses that burden them or get referrals for professional help, Rood said, many are able to address problems before they spiral out of control.

He and 10 other peers from eight participating departments in the Harrisburg area had 392 contacts with officers and their families in the past six months.

An October 2020 survey study of 434 police officers working in major U.S. cities by JAMA Network Open, a monthly medical journal published by the American Medical Association, found that 12 percent had a lifetime mental health diagnosis and 26 percent reported current symptoms of mental illness. Only 17 percent had sought mental health care services in the past year, but officers said they would be more likely to get help with assurances of confidentiality.

Rural officers face similar difficulties, Rood said, because they are often more isolated and working shifts on their own.

“When I show up on a call, there are usually three to four other guys on the same call,” he said. “Here, in a small community, it’s usually just” one officer.

That’s why it’s important to have an opportunity to speak confidentially with someone who has a similar work background and experience, Rood said.

“The biggest barrier is finding people they trust and know it won’t hurt their career,” said Piecuch on why he favors the peer program offered through Access which provides trained peers from in and outside a department’s jurisdiction. “They can speak with a peer they know or a peer they don’t know.”

Alec Persun, a Central Susquehanna Regional 911 Center dispatcher, is interested in training to be a peer.

“Mental health has become a big issue, especially during COVID,” he said. “During eight hours in the 911 Center you hear a lot of crazy calls and you can’t always leave it at work. I think it will be useful to have people who have done the job to be available.”

Piecuch said he’d like to eventually expand the program to include peer training for fire and EMS first responders in the Valley.

(c)2022 The Daily Item (Sunbury, Pa.)