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Supporting first responders facing mental illness

NASHUA – Across the state, police officers work tirelessly to serve their communities, and when a call comes in they respond, regardless of the repeated stress and trauma in which they are exposed.

In recognizing the realities of mental health challenges some on the front lines face, U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., met with law enforcement officials from Nashua, Manchester, Franklin, Laconia and the New Hampshire State Police Tuesday to talk about efforts to raise awareness of mental health issues, improve and expand mental health services for officers and combat the stigma of seeking help.

Nashua Police recently felt the affects of suicide ripple through the department last month with the passing of Capt. Jon Lehto, who died by suicide. During Tuesday’s roundtable discussion, Chief Michael Carignan said the department has been working hard with peer-to-peer support for a handful of years, and felt they were in a good place, that is until Lehto’s passing shocked the department. During their talk, the importance of addressing mental health among law enforcement early on in peoples’ careers was highlighted.

“I think it’s really important for us as leaders of police departments to acknowledge that it is an issue, and acknowledge that it is OK (for it) to be an issue … and to go to ask for help to get treatment,” Carignan said.

John Mulet is on the board with Veteran and First Responder Healthcare, based in Manchester, and said one of the things he thinks will be seen in New Hampshire with the current drug crisis is more mental health issues arising as law enforcement deals with that. He has been working with VFR doing outreach and providing mental health and substance use disorder services for veterans and first responders in the state. He is a retiree of the New York Police Department, and also a 9/11 survivor. As a result of some of the traumas experienced while serving in the country’s largest city, he said he lost his career and eight years of his life to post traumatic stress disorder, which is one of the reasons why he committed to the work he is involved with now.

“In 2018, in the United States we lost 55 law enforcement officers to felonious murder,” Mulet said. “We lost 167 to suicide. Let that sink in for a minute. We kill ourselves at a rate three times in which the bad guys kill us. We invest in training, we invest in equipment, we invest in all these things to protect ourselves from the most dangerous people on the planet.”

He went on to pose the question of, what do we invest for the day that the most dangerous person on the planet to us is ourselves?

However, while peer-to-peer support, resiliency training and other initiatives can make a difference, they do come with a pricetag, and law enforcement needs that financial support so their officers can, in turn, support the communities they serve without being bogged down by the burdens that arise with untreated mental health issues.

Shaheen successfully added $5 million for the Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act, of which $3 million will be provided in grants for state and local law enforcement agencies to utilize for improved mental health services, training and to reduce stigma of officers seeking help and programs to address ways of handling repeated exposure to stress and trauma while on the job. This was done in bipartisan legislation for fiscal year 2020 that recently passed the Senate Appropriations Committee. In addition, it directs the Department of Justice for the first time to begin collecting and reporting nationwide data on law enforcement officer suicide.

While attending the roundtable discussionm Shaheen thanked the Nashua Police Department and Lehto’s family for being willing to speak out about his passing. She said talking about suicide in law enforcement is really important to do.

“Like so many mental health issues, we don’t talk about them, and if we don’t talk about them, we can’t figure out how to deal with it and make sure that we provide help,” Shaheen said.

As it is, Manchester Police Chief Carlo Capano said officers are expected to go out and provide assistance and help people in crisis, while underscoring how at some point, attention needs to be turned toward officers that might also be in crisis themselves. His department also is seeing more and more officers leave before they have reached retirement age.

“We just had one resign the other day after 11 years, just saying that I can’t continue to do this every single day, it’s just a grind,” Capano said.

As a chief of police, he said that is concerning, because there is only so much movement available in a department to switch up the officers that are on the street. Recently, he said they had five officers at the police academy, and one came in last Monday and resigned before even starting because he just saw what he was about to endure and did not see himself having the passion to move forward with the career. He said mental health issues are affecting officers every single day, and they are now seeing some step out as a result.

Franklin Police Chief David Goldstein said if the numbers are taken from law enforcement, fire, EMS, anything in the first responders area, and statistical manipulations are done in a process called rate adjustment, the numbers are going to start to approach those of military veteran suicides.

“With that, we have another epidemic on our hands,” Goldstein said.

Adam Urquhart may be contacted at 594-1206 or aurquhart@nashuatelegraph.com.