Carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders is a feeling local police officers are accustomed to, despite the ebbs and flows of day-to-day challenges happening around them.
Troubles at home or on the job, mental health stability, concerns about finances --- aspects all adults deal with --- are put aside for first responders, police and fire officials as they are there for citizens in their time of need.
To help address these needs, the 100 Club of Arizona has created two new mobile apps to assist first responders with mental health issues from afar.
The impact of tragedies seen by an officer influences each individual differently, and for some, it can be felt long after a call ends, Paradise Valley Police Department officials say.
“As we respond to calls for service, we are provided the chance to help someone get through their worst day. However, it also means we may be confronted and see with the worst of the worst within society,” Community Resource Officer Steven McGhee said.
Recent studies show more first responders are dying by suicide than in the line of duty, 100 Club of Arizona CEO Angela Harrolle says.
The 100 Club of Arizona is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that supports more than 50,000 firefighters, public safety officers, first responders, and their families throughout the state of Arizona.
“They are seeing, witnessing things, being a part of things we would never want to be a part of our lives --- drowning, dismembered bodies, loss of loved ones --- that puts a lot of stress on an individual,” Ms. Harrolle said.
“We lose one police officer every 17 hours in the U.S. to suicide. Last year from Jan. 1, 2019 to Jan. 1 2020 we lost 12 first responders in Arizona to suicide.”
Ms. Harrolle acknowledges there are many reasons one decides to take their own life.
“If we can get this app into the palm of their hands and provide immediate access to resources, if we can get that to them into an environment where they’re comfortable in the privacy of their own home or car where they can do tele-therapy, they’re going to be connected with a culturally sensitive person --- that is incredibly instrumental,” Ms. Harrolle said.
Paradise Valley Police Chief Peter Wingert urged people to utilize the resources available.
“We hope that all resources that become available to address mental health-related issues are known, used if ever needed, and kept as a tool to share with others you meet who may be fighting their own battles.”
Coined, “Bulletproof,” the new app for police officers is an extension of a 100 Club of Arizona website providing similar resources.
For firefighters, a new app called, “Fireproof” is in the works and expected to be available next month.
Both apps are for sworn officers/firefighters, non-sworn department staff and family members.
The Bulletproof and Fireproof apps provide comprehensive information, resources and referrals to help users with their mental health, physical goals, relationships and long-term financial stability.
Ms. Harrolle says Arizona is the first, and only, state where these resources included in the apps are offered to first responders, statewide, free of charge.
“It used to be a subscription-based model, and not every agency had access to it. We removed the subscription and financial requirements,” Ms. Harrolle said.
Both the Paradise Valley Police Department and Scottsdale Police Departments have signed on to participate in the new Bulletproof app.
However, a police department does not need to be signed up if an individual police officer or fire fighter wants access to the resources.
“It does go through the department, but an individual has immediate access to it,” Ms. Harrolle said, noting the 100 Club would offer resources to any service member seeking help immediately.
“As a public we hold first responders to a higher standard whether they should or shouldn’t be --- we do. If you were to call 9-1-1 as a community member, you expect your first responder to show up with their A-game. They can’t say I’m having a bad day. So we say, ‘we are the men and women who stand behind these men and women who wear a badge. They need support and resources to make them into best possible and holistic person they can be.’”
A recent study by the Ruderman Family Foundation found that the rate of post-traumatic stress and depression can be up to five times higher for police officers and firefighters than for the general public.
“All aspects of health play a role and support our officers’ ability to respond safely when an emergency arises,” said Mr. McGhee. “However, the struggles of mental health for both first responders and the public can remain invisible unless help is asked. If you or a loved one is dealing with depression or suicidal thoughts, please know there are resources out there like the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255).”
Issues facing first responders can range from marital concerns to financial troubles --- and Ms. Harrolle says sleep deprivation is prevalent amongst this population.
“You’ve got guys and gals going to work for 24 hours or 48 hours, if they’re doing a double, in a row. And then, they go home and work there, they have family responsibilities,” she explained.
“Sleep deprivation is a very real thing, not only on the fire side but the PD side as well.”
Furthermore, she points to a stigma that can often times accompany asking for help.
“It’s very hard to raise your hand and say, ‘I need help.’ When a law enforcement officer in the state of Arizona says, ‘I need help, specifically I’m having suicidal ideation, the No. 1 course of action is to remove their duty weapon,” Ms. Harrolle said. “If you take their duty weapon it’s like taking their identity. They’re assigned to a desk, and everyone knows you’re struggling --- it’s not a comfortable position. It’s a real challenge.”
Scottsdale Police Department Lieutenant Charles Cabrera says he has not witnessed a public embarrassment of being reassigned to a desk if a person expresses their struggles, as Ms. Harrolle described anecdotally. But, ridding of the stigma associated with self-reporting is something law enforcement is attempting to do across the nation, Lt. Cabrera says.
“That is something we have been working with. Like in our case, the city itself, though our employee assistance programs and within the department, peer support and resources --- a lot of information is private between the patient and the medical person in particular,” Lt. Cabrera explained.
“We are very conscious of that, and we are trying to do our best to not alienate people who are requesting help. That’s one of the biggest things I think we’re trying to do is to get officers and employees too on the civilian side --- the last thing we want to do is give someone a stigma.”
The Scottsdale Police Department had been looking to offer help resources to its officers in an easier form when the 100 Club of Arizona approached them to discuss their in-the-works app.
“They were taking it over and upgrading it to provide additional, and turning it into an app. We were like we’d be happy to jump on board with that,” Lt. Cabrera explained. “I’m our 360 Wellness Coordinator; one thing we’ve been trying to work on is how we can get resources to our department faster, quicker information to use when they need it.”
In a nutshell, the Bulletproof app offers SPD officers, employees and family members instant information.
“They can go to the app, pull up information and it’s there instantly --- names, numbers, and other resources, it’s right there --- versus I have to call the police department, and now if I’m on the computer, I have to look up the particular folder,” he said. “Whether on vacation, at home, or actually working, they can pull it up any time, any place.”
Lt. Cabrera has been on duty for 17 years, and says he feels he handles his on-the-job stress and emotions well, knowing how to decompress. However, detailing his previous day, he said there’s real concern for how some people deal with what they experience.
“I responded to three separate vehicle collisions involving a death. In one particular day I was around three deaths. For a newer, younger officer, that can be very traumatizing,” he said. “At the end of the day, is that person going to be able to decompress what they saw, what they felt, what they experienced?”
Through resources available, Lt. Cabrera says the police department is encouraging their employees to seek help when needed.
“We’re really pushing across the board that it’s OK to feel stress, OK to feel concerned, OK to feel emotion --- especially if you’re the person who has to advise someone that their loved one, their son, wife, daughter passed away,” he explained. “Allowing our employees, our officers to know it’s OK to feel that way. There are resources to allow you to deal with those type of situations and continue to live a healthy life.”
One aspect Lt. Cabrera pointed out is when someone does ask for help, they’re given phone numbers and names of resources or people to talk to, giving the employee more power to choose who to contact.
“The big thing we’re pushing is continuing to dispel the rumors, continuing to get rid of that stigma so that people are willing to come forward --- willing to come forward and say, ‘I’m having issues, I’m having trouble sleeping, or I’m constantly dreaming about a particular incident. If I start pouring out how I feel, am I going to get looked at different?’” Lt. Cabrera explained.
“As a department, we’re working with all our resources, human resources, to make sure we are being transparent as far as giving information to employees and providing resources. They make the calls, it is private.”