From the lighthouses of Long Island to the lights of the Big Apple to small towns along the Hudson to the unique regions of Upstate, New York has so much to offer its residents, businesses and visitors. I’ve been fortunate enough to call the Empire State home since 1998 and I know I’m not alone in the sense of pride I feel as a New Yorker.
For many of us, that feeling of pride is rooted in our public safety community that allows us to feel safe in our neighborhoods – big and small. From responding during the horrific attacks on September 11 to patrolling the subway and keeping our communities safe amidst a pandemic, our first responders always answer the call.
But as brave and strong as our New York public safety community is, the act of repeatedly stepping up to the plate when worst-case scenarios strike can take a serious toll on the mental and emotional well-being of those individuals who work on the front lines every day. “It’s OK to not be OK” is something that all of us – especially our first responders – need to hear.
“Conversations about mental health are often swept under the rug or never stated. But the high rates of depression, PTSD, substance use disorder, and suicide make it clear that first responder mental health needs to be addressed early and often.” – NYSSA 2nd Vice President, Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple
And they need to hear it now.
- First responders face higher rates of mental health issues compared to the general population, with more than 1 in 3 dealing with depression, post-traumatic stress, burnout, anxiety, or other mental health issues.1
- Police officers and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.2
As September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, it’s time that we step up to support those who support us.
With this goal in mind, the New York State Sheriffs’ Association (NYSSA) and FirstNet®, Built with AT&T are working together on an innovative health and wellness program for first responders. This collaborative program – available to all 58 county Sheriff’s Offices in the state – was created with the valuable expertise of some of the Empire State’s most respected mental health law enforcement organizations to help maximize its impact on the lives of the public safety community.
As part of this health and wellness program, one of these organizations – the New York Law Enforcement Assistance Program (NYLEAP) network – will provide Crisis and Trauma trainings to Sheriff’s Office personnel on a range of topics, including:
- Trauma resource assistance;
- Suicide prevention; and,
- Advanced crisis intervention.
To deepen the mental health support offered by this program, the NYLEAP – along with the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) and Individuals in Crisis and Group Crisis Intervention (ICISF) – is helping Sheriff’s Offices establish or enhance their own dedicated Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to equip our public safety institutions with the necessary tools to support first responders.
- These organizations will provide guidance for the individual Sheriff’s Office personnel who will act as program leaders to implement the peer-based EAP programs.
- In addition to other mental health resources, the program also includes a pilot of an anonymous peer-to-peer hotline that can be used by all personnel and their families.
And while the Crisis and Trauma trainings and EAP’s aim to support all first responders, NYSSA and FirstNet did not forget about the officers who take on the huge responsibility of keeping our children safe at school. Recognizing the increased incidents of school violence, special health and wellness training is being created to help prepare School Resource Officers for crises and make them aware of post-incident resources.
These new NYSSA and FirstNet health and wellness program resources have the potential to be transformative for our first responders’ well-being – but the persisting stigma around mental health can hold first responders back from accessing available help, especially among those who feel they have to “tough it out.”
“As the leaders in law enforcement, we are laser focused on changing the culture and ending the stigma; we want our members to know that it is ‘okay to not be okay’; we are here for you and we have gathered the professional resources to help.” – NYSSA President, Livingston County Sheriff Thomas Dougherty
To help end the stigma so first responders know it’s OK to ask for help when they need it, the new health and wellness program is launching a PSA campaign to shift public perception. Emulating the slogan “It’s OK to not be OK,” the campaign will publicize the challenges first responders face and explain the impact public safety work can have on mental health.
- The campaign will raise awareness among sheriff personnel about available mental health resources with the goal of fostering a more welcoming environment for those seeking support.
In addition to combating the stigma through the PSA campaign, NYSSA is establishing a confidential peer-to-peer hotline to offer an outlet for first responders to anonymously seek help early to keep their stresses from escalating.
And we are committed to continuing to support first responder health and wellness efforts – both in my home state and throughout the country. Through the FirstNet Health and Wellness Coalition, we’ve been supporting first responders across the country on and off the job for almost two years.
- NYSSA is working with the more than two dozen FirstNet Health & Wellness coalition members to continue improving these health and wellness resources, because tackling these challenges together will make us all stronger.
- We are also proud to support the three-digit emergency hotline code – 988 – which enables our customers – both first responders and the broader community – to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by call or text.
Working together to create health and wellness resources for our first responders is just one of the many ways we can thank them for keeping us safe and allowing us to enjoy all New York has to offer. The public safety community across the state puts themselves in dangerous situations every day, and we need to act now so they have the tools they need to not only keep them safe physically, but also mentally. NYSSA Past-President, Cattaraugus County Sheriff Tim Whitcomb said it best:
“It is time to Protect and Serve those who Protect and Serve!”
1 Purvis, M., Fullencamp, L. & Docherty, M. (2020). Animal Assisted Therapy on Law Enforcement Mental Health: A Therapy Dog Implementation Guide. Bowling Green University.
2 Miriam Heyman, et al., “The Ruderman White Paper on Mental Health and Suicide of First Responders,” Ruderman Family Foundation, April 2018.