After a recent spate of Chicago police officer suicides, mental health experts spoke with a city council committee on Thursday afternoon about what can be done to support police officers.
Alexa James, CEO of the Chicago Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said her organization has worked with the Chicago Police Department since 2004 on crisis intervention training and, through this partnership, identified the need to provide mental health support to officers.
Officers are more likely to die by suicide than by any other form of death in the line of duty, James told the council committee on public safety. More than 10 Chicago police officers have died by suicide since 2018.
“The factors contributing to these deaths are complex,” she said. “Police and firefighters have high rates of job instability. They suffered continuous trauma. They have also suffered physical injuries that impact their mental well-being. It is unfortunately the perfect recipe for officers who feel hopeless and some use substances to manage stress and trauma reaction – both of which are major predictors of suicide.
The law enforcement culture has focused on “toughening up,” which has prevented officers from seeking service, James said. To counter this, there must be “significant investment and resources dedicated to a comprehensive wellness strategy,” she said.
Elena Gottreich, deputy mayor of the city’s public safety, told the committee that the mayor’s office recognizes the need to protect the predictability of officers’ schedules, while balancing the need to protect the public. The state provided a $10 million grant to the city for costs associated with first responder wellness programs.
“There’s been a significant amount of reform within the police department, and I think if you talk to a lot of police officers, they’ve benefited positively from those reforms and the fact that it’s a more conversational open,” Gottreich said.
Aldus. Silvana Tabares, 23rd, asked how officers are supposed to use the mental health programs available to them when their days off are cancelled.
Gottreich said canceled vacation days had been “significantly reduced,” but there were additional canceled vacation days in the spring and summer, which have now been reduced. Even at work, agents have access to some of these resources.
Tina Skahill, director of policing and reform at the CPD, said professional advisers attend roll calls and talk to officers about the need to take care of themselves. Filing supervisors have also been trained to recognize when officers need time to look after their well-being.
James said that while she applauds the police department’s peer support program and clinical program, she’s heard from focus groups that officers need other forms of support and wellness, like the stability of supervisors. She also said she learned that accessing therapy can be tricky because it’s hard to access during work hours and officers don’t want to leave their partner alone.
“Wellness is not just about clinical care,” she said. “…I think it’s around communication strategies that officers feel supported. I think it’s hearing people’s trauma and understanding how that must feel to them.”
The best stories from the editors of the Chicago Tribune, delivered to your inbox every afternoon.
Dr Robert Sobel, director of CPD’s professional counseling division, said that over the past year the budget has been increased from 11 licensed clinicians to 22, so each district can have its own licensed clinician. But only 13 of those positions have been filled.
Several offers were made to candidates for the vacant positions, but they were rejected in part because of the salary, which is just over $77,000, Skahill said.
Matt Richards, deputy commissioner for behavioral health at the Chicago Department of Public Health, said there’s a mental health workforce shortage and the city is competing for candidates getting started. in private practice and looking to work in telehealth from home.
Lopez said the city is missing the mark even with its commitment to recruit clinicians in every district.
“No one takes the work of our officers lightly,” Lopez said. “You have work to do. And we shouldn’t just sit idly by because real lives are in danger.