One of the most difficult challenges for police after traumatic events, like the July 7 shootings, is getting officers the counseling and mental health services they need. Many have to be convinced to seek out help. But that “tough-guy” attitude of police departments in the past might slowly be melting away.
Dallas Police Officer Frederick Frazier was downtown that night.
"We saw the dead bodies. We saw the families that were affected," Frazier said. "That doesn’t ever leave you."
Frazier has been an officer for 21 years. And the shooting in downtown Dallas last month, which killed five officers, weighs on him constantly.
"Cause you start thinking, ‘Do I really need to do this job? Can I do something else that's not going to affect my family like that?’" he said. "When you leave to go to work, your wife’s thinking about it. My 13-year-old, who’s having the hardest time with this, is the one that makes me think about it everyday. And they’re thinking ‘Why can’t Dad just go do something else?’"
It’s moments like these that remind Frazier how important it is to be able to talk openly about what happened on July 7. He’s the First Vice President of the Dallas Police Association and Chairman of the Assist the Officer Foundation — an organization that provides financial help and counseling to Dallas officers.
Frazier said that the old-school police mentality of "suck it up buttercup; if you can't make it, get the hell out," is a relic of the past. Younger officers are helping to chip away at that attitude, but most agree that it still lingers. In the last several weeks, Frazier has been encouraging officers to seek counseling.
"The guy that’s going to run into a gunfight, you can’t change overnight. And that’s who we all are," Frazier said. "So that resistance is there because our minds are resisting it. Also our peers, if they found out, they’d be like ‘Oh my god, wait, is he OK to work with?’ So it becomes even a factor of trust."
The Assist the Officer Foundation provides free access to the Meier Clinic in Richardson as well as to two suicide hotlines. The foundation has five counselors on staff — one ex-cop, two police spouses and two military veterans. And Frazier said for them, confidentiality is critical. The names of officers who use the services never make it back to the Dallas Police Department.
Frazier said their counseling services were flooded by police employees after the shootings. He sees that as a good sign, but it’s not the end. Even after July 7, officers will have to continue dealing with stressful issues like low morale, low pay, physical altercations and life or death decisions.
"The nature of it is, if we as a society expose people, through their job, to repeated traumatic events that involve fear of loss of limb or life, we know that creates a biological change," said Dr. John Burruss, CEO of Metrocare Services, a nonprofit mental health care provider in North Texas.
A University of Buffalo study found police officers are at higher risk for long term health problems like cardiovascular disease, obesity, cancer and sleeplessness. Over the past decade, police suicides have dropped slightly from 141 to just over 100, according to a study by the group Badge of Life, which looks into police and mental health. Still, officers are 1.5 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population.
The Dallas Police Department has psychologists of its own on staff as well as a peer support program, and Police Chief David Brown has said he wants to make counseling mandatory for officers after traumatic events. Mental health professionals, like Dr. John Burruss, say it’s a noble proposition — but it could end up hurting more people than it helps.
"They’re probably the ones that could process this on their own anyway, and the act of making them do some kind of group processing or individual processing actually worsens the experience," said Burruss. "It heightens the anxiety response; it heightens the stress response in them."
Still, most doctors agree that some kind of mental health care for officers is good — not just after trauma, but on a regular basis. Burruss said being proactive about mental health can help stave off more serious mental health problems, like alcohol abuse or drug addiction.
Something else that will help? Reducing the demands of police officers.
"We’re asking our officers to be police officers, and school teachers and counselors because our underlying services aren’t adequately funded by the state," said Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, who worked with officers after the shootings. "Essentially what society says to the police is take care of this problem and don’t let us see it."
Jenkins, like many others, said there should be less stigma about seeking help and that it’s not weakness.
"If they make the connection that this counseling helps them go about doing their jobs better for the communities that they service, then I just encourage everybody to do it," he said.
And perhaps if more officers would come forward about their own struggles, more of their colleagues would feel empowered to do the same.