Elgin police seek to boost officers' participation in mental health programs
Elgin police officials are seeking to boost participation in programs that encourage officers to be proactive about mental health.
More than a dozen officers are part of a volunteer peer support team trained by the nonprofit Operation Shattered Stars, and the goal is to encourage officers to take advantage of that and add even more volunteers this year, Lt. Adam Schuessler said.
The department also gives a day off to officers who meet with a licensed counselor four times a year, a program that launched in January 2018. Additionally, the department offers an employee assistance program, common among police departments.
"What we are looking to do is save careers from destructive behavior, and we are also looking to prevent officer deaths," Schuessler said.
At least 159 officers nationwide died by suicide in 2018, the third straight year in which that exceeded all other line-of-duty deaths, according to data compiled by Blue H.E.L.P.
Three Elgin officers have died by suicide, the last one about 15 years ago, Cmdr. Colin Fleury said. A Metra officer who had an office at the Elgin police station took his life three years ago.
Peer team members give confidential support, via phone or in person, to active and retired officers who need to talk to someone for any reason, said Rob Fox, founder and executive director of Operation Shattered Stars. About 35 law enforcement agencies across the state have officers who've gone through peer support training; Rockford has the most, followed by Elgin and Aurora, he said.
Law enforcement administration has made strides in understanding that mental health support is imperative, but there is still a lot of reluctance among officers, Fox said.
"Police officers feel like they need to fix everything, so they feel like they should fix their own problems," he said.
Officers also fear consequences, such as departments fighting disability pensions related to post-traumatic stress disorder, Fox said.
A law enacted last year allows police officers to seek mental health treatment and not lose their firearm owner's identification cards.
"The largest problem is the huge stigma on officers being weak and asking for help," said Elgin police Sgt. Heather Robinson, a member of the peer support team since 2017.
"Policing is a totally different machine altogether. There are a lot of layers to that and a lot of things over the years that can get to you, like a sleeping giant. When a stressor in your life pops up -- death, divorce, or marriage -- it can really trigger certain things."
Elgin officers can earn a day off by meeting four times with a professional of their choosing, or with Albert R. Keating, a police chaplain and licensed therapist. Keating said he's seen a steady increase in participation.
"Police officers have issues of trust to begin with, and it took me a bit of time in order to gain their trust," he said.
His confidential sessions are more like informal, friendly conversations than serious therapy, which can follow if the officers want it, he said. "Whether it's marital issues or substance abuse, a behavior, when it's not spoken of, it stays secret and it gets worse."
Fox and Keating said the only exception to confidentiality is when someone is a threat to himself or others.
Supervisors can spot whether officers might need encouragement to seek help, Schuessler said. For example, they can notice if a normally social officer starts withdrawing, or if written reports suddenly become poor or there are sudden complaints about behavior during traffic stops, he said.
Elgin also is committed to promoting physical health among officers, who get $400 and a day off if they pass a physical test once a year under a program started a few years ago, Fleury said.
"We want the best officer, the healthiest officer we can put out in the public," he said. "Officers go through stress. ... We really want to make sure they are out there with their minds as clear as can be."
To get in touch with the peer support team from Operations Shattered Stars call 1-844-50-SUPPORT.