BAR HARBOR — “For years and years, we [in law enforcement] didn’t really think or talk about officer well-being. But now we understand that it’s really important that we take better care of our people,” said Bar Harbor and Mount Desert Police Chief Jim Willis.
Included in his draft budgets for both police departments next year are funds for annual mental health evaluations for officers. The evaluations will be conducted by psychologists with the Institute for Forensic Psychology (IFP).
For officers who witness or are involved in a traumatic event, IFP psychologists will be available for “critical incident debriefs.”
“I think of that as psychological first aid,” Willis said. “We never know which incidents are going to be traumatic for which people, and it’s important to talk about it and process those thoughts and feelings as soon as you can.”
Willis said an example of a critical incident was the car crash in Acadia National Park in 2019 in which three people were killed.
“We had a lot of our people there, and it was very traumatic,” he said. “We would like to have had some professional services available.”
Willis noted that the suicide rate among police officers, including police chiefs, is alarmingly high. About 630 officers in the U.S. died last year, and nearly one-quarter of those deaths were suicides.
“Ours is a tough-guy profession, and we tend to keep that stuff in,” Willis said. “But now, we’re trying to promote the message that it’s OK to not be OK and that there’s help out there.”
Acadia National Park Chief Ranger Therese Picard echoed that.
“We are working to transition from a silent and stoic workforce to one that is more open about stress, to asking for help and recognizing early signs of chronic and acute stress in ourselves and coworkers,” she said. “While moving the needle can take time, every time we talk about it, recognize it as important and support those individuals seeking help, we make progress.
“In terms of crisis support, we use Critical Stress Incident Management (CSIM) for some incidents, such as rescues and fatalities…that addresses the entire group to normalize an individual’s reaction to the event,” Picard said.
CSIM is a psychological helping process that focuses on an immediate and identifiable problem.
“Often attendees help each other as they share their own reactions so that individuals understand they aren’t the only one with a strong reaction to the event,” Picard said.
“Also, for individuals struggling with a specific crisis, we have identified mental health providers in the state of Maine who are familiar with the daily work and stress of the law enforcement profession and would be available for rangers to speak with.”
The U.S. Department of the Interior has an Office of Law Enforcement, Security and Emergency Services, which, Picard said, is working to provide more mental health services. She said the office created a new position last year to focus specifically on mental health issues.
Along with providing mental health support for police officers, Willis has arranged for two staff members with Aroostook Mental Health Services (AMHS), which has an office in Ellsworth, to spend two days a week, initially, at the Bar Harbor Police Department.
“They can be available to go to calls with us and talk with people who may need their services,” Willis said. “So, the emergency room will be the last place we go instead of the first.”
He said AMHS is providing that service under a contract with the state, and there is no cost to the police department.
“Because they are crisis workers and just deal with whatever comes in, rather than making appointments, they can bring their phones to the police department and do their work here,” Willis said. “We agreed to give them private office space with internet connectivity, so they can answer crisis calls from other communities.”