Jeremy Galbreaith used to believe he could tough out the mental strain of his job. It’s what the older officers did when he joined the Idaho Falls Police Department more than 20 years ago.
The weight of the stress grew with Galbreaith’s experience, however. He spent five years as a patrol officer, then another six as a detective specializing in child sex abuse cases.
“It never really bothered me to be doing these things,” Galbreaith said. “Then I had my own kids.”
Having a family of his own changed how Galbreaith saw the crimes he investigated. It also changed how he saw mental health and stress management.
Not all mental health issues affecting first responders are resolved so successfully.
In 2018 an estimated 159 law enforcement officers nationwide died by suicide, 15 more than died in the line of duty, according to Blue Help, an organization that tracks law enforcement suicides.
Blue Help finds most of its data through news stories and by contacting law enforcement offices. Family members also reach out to the group to report a suicide death.
Blue Help notes on its statistics page that the data has to be regularly updated and may not reflect all law enforcement suicides.
“We also believe that there are more suicides that have not been reported and plan to continue to collect data indefinitely,” the website states.
The lack of reliable data can make it difficult to study a problem law enforcement are already uncomfortable discussing — their own mental health.
Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Bryan Lovell said most deputies would be afraid of openly discussing their mental health because they could be stigmatized as “crazy.”
Last month, Gov. Brad Little signed into law a bill that allows first responders to file for workers’ compensation for treatment of work-related psychological injuries.
Previously, in Idaho, first responders could file for workers’ compensation for post-traumatic stress injuries only if there was an accompanying physical injury, the Idaho Press reported. Proponents of the bill argued that cost kept first responders from seeking the help they needed.
Under the new law, police, firefighters, paramedics and other first responders will be able to file for workers’ compensation if they could demonstrate “clear and convincing evidence of a mental injury” related to their work, according to the bill, the Idaho Press reported.
Dr. Janet Allen of Creekside Counseling works with the police department to debrief officers after major- or high-stress events. Critical incident stress debriefings are meant to help the officers stay aware of symptoms of high stress that may not appear for days or weeks after an officer is exposed to acute stressors.
Some of the symptoms officers watch out for are if someone is becoming distant or disengaged, or seeming on edge. Galbreaith said the stressors can have cumulative effects that are not readily apparent.
“It may not be the first fatality that gets you, but the fifth,” Galbreaith said.
Officers may have to respond to multiple accidents, injury and abuse calls per day. Domestic violence calls can be particularly draining, and Galbreaith said officers have to remember that what may be a routine call for them could be the worst day of someone’s life.
Galbreaith and Allen both said the goal is to prevent mental health stressors from accumulating until they influence an officer’s well-being and job performance. Galbreaith compared it to how most people regularly see doctors in order to catch health concerns before they become serious.
Allen said her role is to make sure officers take that stress seriously, rather than shrugging it off as part of the job.
Like Galbreaith, Allen has seen a change in attitudes toward mental health among the younger officers.
“I really believe the younger officers are a little more open to the attitude that officers are people first,” Allen said.
The Idaho Falls Police Department has seen an influx of younger officers in recent years. Of the 92 sworn officers on the force, 42 have less than five years of experience in law enforcement.
During a critical incident stress debriefing, the counselors have all officers and dispatchers involved in the incident gather to discuss their role and how they felt about what happened.
“If they can talk about it and diffuse the stress, it really allows them to move forward,” Allen said.
Talking about feelings and emotions, especially with colleagues, can be uncomfortable for officers who are worried it will make them look weak.
“Showing any sign of distress 20 years ago would be a sign of weakness,” Galbreaith said.
Allen said she tells the officers at the beginning of a debriefing that the conversations are confidential, and are not part of a critique or investigation.
To earn trust with the officers and get insight into the stressors that come with the job, Allen has gone on ride-alongs with the officers. The department required her to wear a protective vest, something Allen said made her immediately sympathetic to police concerns of being assaulted on the job.
Outside of debriefings, police can seek counseling through city and county employee assistance programs. The programs are available to all city and county employees.
Concerns for mental health aren’t limited to law enforcement. In 2017, 103 firefighters killed themselves, compared to 93 who died in the line of duty, according to a study by the Ruderman Family Foundation.
“PTSD and depression rates among firefighters and police officers have been found to be as much as five times higher than the rates within the civilian population, which causes these first responders to commit suicide at a considerably higher rate,” the study said.
The Idaho Falls Fire Department is working to create a program similar to the police department’s Traumatic Response Unified Support Team.
The idea behind the TRUST program, which began in 2017, is to train a few key officers to provide support in the department for those going through difficult times. The program includes officers of all ranks to allow police to approach someone they can relate to more easily than a supervisor.
Galbreaith said the support provided is informal, and that while TRUST team members may recommend counseling, it is not required.
“It’s much smoother when an officer comes to a realization they need help on their own,” Galbreaith said.