Mental well-being is just as important as physical well-being. Since first responders are often the first people someone in a mental health crisis interacts with, it is critical that we know what mental illness looks like and what to do when we see it.
Dr. Vincent Van Hasselt is my mentor on mental health awareness for first responders. He is a professor at Nova Southeastern University (NSU) specializing in police psychology and a certified reserve officer with the Plantation Police Department. Dr. Van Hasselt knows firsthand that many mental health issues are silent and difficult to detect. Despite our wealth of knowledge and ability to perform our jobs safely and effectively, first responders benefit greatly from specific training dealing with mental health. As his former student, I have incorporated much of what Dr. Van Hasselt taught me into my work at the Broward Sheriff's Office.
One specific course that Dr. Van Hasselt is a big proponent of is Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training. He has been teaching it since its inception in 2002. The training educates deputies to interact appropriately with someone who has a history of mental illness and gives them a better ability to deescalate a situation when needed. CIT-trained deputies can also recognize signs of mental illness better and have an increased sensitivity to what an individual living with mental illness may be going through. I believe this training is essential for all our deputies, and I will continue to push toward a fully-trained department.
CIT training alone, though, is not enough to address the mental health challenges facing today's public safety agencies. We must also confront our own mental health challenges. Many of our first responders, which includes law enforcement, fire rescue, detention and communications personnel, are used to helping others. Yet, they have trouble knowing how to find or ask for help for themselves. In comparison to the general population, first responders are up to three times as likely to develop PTSD or related disorders. These disorders can lead to severe complications for anyone if left untreated. For first responders who interact with the public in high-stress, often traumatic situations daily, an unchecked mental health issue can be disastrous.
I needed to do something about it. When I became sheriff, Dr. Van Hasselt reached out to me. He, too, was concerned about first responders' mental health and asked BSO to partner with NSU on an important program. Together, with the aid of a Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grant and the tremendous help of Judy Couwels from our BSO Employee Assistance Program, we started the Peer Support Team, a progressive new resource for my agency's employees.
We want to make it easier for someone who needs help to get it, and first responders are more likely to seek help from a peer. The Peer Support Team is comprised of 30 sworn and civilian BSO employees who are available at any time for fellow BSO employees. Our Peer Support Team members are trained in active listening skills and critical incident stress management. They can refer those in need to community resources, and they have access to licensed psychologists who can handle more clinically complicated cases. This vital program is entirely voluntary and provides support and help to employees who may be experiencing personal issues, distress from critical incidents or are suffering from stress. I am proud of everyone involved in its development.
When we treat everyone with the appropriate methods of care, compassion and understanding, we all benefit.
Service Equals Reward
Sheriff Gregory Tony