September 30, 2022

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First responders suffer in silence with mental health, police psychologist says ‘Resources don’t exist’

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A new survey suggests many first responders in Virginia are suffering in silence when it comes to mental health. 

It’s a trend Joseph Diman knows all too well. 

“I relive May 4th over and over and over again and what I could’ve done to allow Gary to be alive today,” Diman said. 

May 4, 2006, is the day the now-retired Chesterfield Police officer saw his partner, officer Gary Buro, die during an early morning call that ended in gunfire. 

Diman survived after being shot five times. He said seeing those scars still brings back painful scenes in vivid detail. 

“I’ll be thinking about Gary. I’ll be thinking about the smell of gunpowder. I’ll be thinking about things that happened 16 years ago but, to me, it just happened yesterday,” Diman said. 

Retired police officer Joseph Diman stands beside a memorial honoring his fallen partner, officer Gary Buro.

Diman said he went back to work as soon as his wounds were healed. 

“I was physically ready but I wasn’t emotionally ready,” Diman said. 

Diman was later diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but it took him several years to seek therapy. 

“I felt at the time that I couldn’t be 100% forthcoming or honest with what I was experiencing because it would’ve been seen as weakness,” Diman said. 

Fear of being viewed as weak was among the chief concerns cited by first responders, who reported being reluctant to seek help in a new National Wellness Survey for Public Safety Personnel. Others were concerned about how seeking help could impact their career or security clearance. Some said they wanted to handle it on their own or were worried about confidentiality. 

Preliminary results released by the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police summarize answers from 2,635 first responders, or about 20% of all first responders across the state. 

  • 19% received clinical scores indicating levels of moderate to severe depression
  • 20% received clinical scores indicating moderate to severe levels of anxiety
  • 12% received scores representing clinical significance on PTSD assessment
  • 21% indicated problems with alcohol
  • 8% reported experiencing thoughts of passive suicide ideation (thoughts of suicide/self-harm, but no plan to carry it out)
  • 4% reported experiencing thoughts of active suicide ideation (thoughts of suicide/self-harm and a plan to carry it out)

Of law enforcement respondents who received scores of clinical significance, the vast majority were not formally diagnosed. 

  • 69% for depression
  • 74% for anxiety 
  • 73% for PTSD

The survey also showed where first responders are currently accessing behavioral health resources, both internally and externally.

Source: National Wellness Survey for Public Safety Personnel

Dr. Jon Moss, a police psychologist, said the low rate of formal diagnosis likely reflects a lack of willingness to seek help and a reluctance among professionals to assign labels to people working in public safety. He said, at times, that can be counterproductive. 

Moss said the data set almost certainly underreports the problem. Notably, a significant number of participants left the survey when presented with trauma-related questions, according to the report. 

Still, Moss said the nationwide effort to collect this kind of data reflects an important shift. 

“People are beginning to recognize that it is a strength to ask for help so they are being encouraged to do so,” Moss said. 

But Moss said the growing recognition doesn’t match the current reality of mental health resources tailored toward police. 

“From my perspective, from the mental health side, resources don’t exist,” Moss said. 

Moss said more police departments need to start hiring mental health staff or building close relationships with clinicians in their community to make seeking help easier. Right now, when a problem is brought to light, he said officers often don’t have a trusted person to turn to who understands the unique challenges associated with the job. 

Chesterfield Police Chief Jeff Katz said training needs to better prepare officers for trauma and how to manage it. 

Additionally, Katz said mental health conditions should be covered under workers’ compensation so that officers in recovery can take time off and have more robust treatment paid for. 

“As opposed to just here is a prescription, take these pills, get back on the road. We have to stop treating our personnel like they’re disposable, they’re not,” Katz said. 

Those comments come after a recent effort to expand workers’ compensation to include anxiety and depressive disorder incurred by law-enforcement officers or firefighters on the job failed in the Virginia General Assembly. 

It passed the state Senate with unanimous support but a House version of the bill never got a vote in the House Appropriations Committee. 

Delegate Rob Bell (R-Albemarle), who sponsored the House bill, said it all came down to funding. 

“I didn’t hear anyone say they didn’t like the idea but a lot of bills go to appropriations with a significant fiscal impact and don’t make it out,” Bell said. “This issue isn’t going away so we certainly will try to find a way to address this and, if this isn’t the best way, we’ll find another way.” 

As the nation sees a shortage of public safety personnel, Katz said action is urgent. 

“If we do these things, we can grow stronger as a public safety infrastructure. That’s an investment and we should stop looking at it as an expense,” Katz said. 

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