In preliminary results of a mental health survey of first responders released by the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police (VACP), 21 percent of those who completed the survey indicated problems with alcohol, 20 percent had clinically significant scores for anxiety, and 19 percent had clinically significant scores for depression. VACP officials think that understates the scale of the problem.
“The Virginia results of the survey indicate the need for a wide variety of resources to assist in diagnosing and treating our officers who are struggling in silence from depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” a Thursday press release states.
The U.S. Marshals Service and Nova Southeastern University are conducting the survey nationally. Of 13,261 surveys sent in Virginia, only 2,635 were completed across all first responders — firefighters, law enforcement, EMS, dispatch, military, and corrections.
“Significant number of participants aborted survey at trauma-related questions,” the release highlighted.
“This indicates that the survey numbers are low in comparison to the actual problem. To see a large number of respondents abort the questionnaire when faced with these difficult questions clearly indicates many are struggling with their traumatic exposures and have not been treated for them,” Herndon Police Chief Maggie DeBoard, a VACP past president, told The Virginia Star.
“This is problematic on many fronts. First, responders that are struggling with traumatic exposures end up with anxiety, depression, and for some, PTSD. Untreated, this contributes significantly to the high suicide rate in our profession. If we don’t treat the underlying issues, we will never reduce those we lose to suicide,” she said.
VACP Executive Director Dana Schrad told The Star, “Our concern is that the responders who exited the survey when they reached these tough questions likely are dealing unsuccessfully with work-related trauma. Officers who have experienced either a serious event trauma or sustained multiple traumatic exposures over time may not be receiving the mental health support that they need.”
The top three duty-related traumas reported in the survey were accidental death, serious assault or non-accidental death, and suicide. 12 percent of survey respondents had scores indicating clinical significance in the PTSD assessment. Eight percent reported thinking of suicide or self-harm, but with no plan to carry it out. Four percent reported thoughts of suicide or self-harm and a plan to carry it out.
Additionally, 69 percent of people who had clinically significant scores for depression were not formally diagnosed; for anxiety, 74 percent were not formally diagnosed; and for PTSD, 73 percent were not formally diagnosed. Of those who did seek behavioral health assistance, 16 percent reported using Peer Support, 17 percent reported using in-house psychologists or counselors, and six percent reported using in-house psychiatrists. Respondents listed reasons for a reluctance to seek help including a desire to handle it themselves, fears about impact to career, and stigma.
Schrad said highlighted the impact of the pandemic, police reform, and anti-police demonstration; she said many officers have left the profession, and it is hard to recruit new hires.
She said, “Our officers have been exposed to an increase in critical events and a loss of public support, which has been both demoralizing and traumatizing. They have hesitated in asking for mental health support for fear that it might negatively impact their careers. We want to change that culture and make it acceptable for all first responders to identify their need for mental health support and ask for it. But we will need to develop those resources to make sure they are readily available to help our officers get the help they need to be fit for duty.
In the press release, Schrad highlighted Senator Bill Desteph’s (R-Virginia Beach) SB 289, which would have made anxiety and depression disorders incurred by law enforcement and firefighters compensable under the Virginia Worker’s Compensation Act. Although the bill passed out of the Senate unanimously, it died in the House Commerce and Energy Committee.
“Funding for mental health treatment must be a priority for the state if we are committed to ensuring the health and wellness of our officers as they protect and care for the safety of our communities,” she said.
DeBoard told The Star that Virginia’s results will probably match national results, expected to be published in May.
She said, “In essence, it demonstrates that our profession is struggling. They get treated under workers compensation when they break a leg or otherwise physically injure themselves. But not all wounds are visible. And right now, there is no compensation for officers who suffer from traumatic experiences that affect their brain. These ‘injuries’ are often more debilitating in the long run than physical injuries on the job, and they affect them both personally and professionally. So many leave our profession broken and in need of help. We have to do a better job of treating them.”