Maryland Recovery Center Treats Burnout and Stress in First Responders

HAVRE DE GRACE, Md. — Ken Beyer can’t think of a day in the past few months where his phone hasn’t floated with calls, texts and emails from a police department, a sheriff’s office or fire station seeking help for an employee. A patrol officer threatens to commit suicide with his service weapon before roll call. A veteran firefighter drowns in vodka until he collapses. A deputy overdosing on fentanyl in his police cruiser.

“This is the worst I’ve seen in my career,” said Beyer, co-founder and CEO of Harbor of Grace Enhanced Recovery Center, a private mental health and addiction recovery and treatment center for first responders in the waterfront town of Maryland. Harbour Grace. Established in 2015, Harbor of Grace is one of only six treatment centers in the United States approved by the Fraternal Order of Police, the world’s largest organization of law enforcement officers.

Public safety is a profession plagued by high rates of mental health and addictions issues. Given the relentless pressures on first responders, Beyer said, treatment centers cannot keep up with demand.

Specialized recovery facilities like Harbor of Grace focus on treating law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and dispatchers – people who regularly face violence and death in the work. Over the past two years, Beyer said, the number of police admitted for treatment at his facility alone has more than tripled. “And we always have up to 20 cops in line,” he said. Other first responder treatment centers have reported a similar spike in patients.

Anger at police and policing practices skyrocketed after a Minneapolis officer murdered George Floyd in 2020, and it put further pressure on officers’ mental health, said Brian Lerner, psychiatrist and medical director of Harbor of Grace. “Officers feel denigrated by the public and often they also feel unsupported by their agencies,” he said.

That’s part of the reason “we’re seeing a significant rate of police burnout,” said Jennifer Prohaska, a clinical psychologist in Kansas City, Kansas, who focuses on helping law enforcement. .

The poor mental health of many officers, combined with low morale, contributed to a police exodus across the country that left departments understaffed and the remaining officers overworked and exhausted. Atlanta, Seattle, Phoenix and Dallas have been particularly hard hit by officer shortages. “It puts tremendous stress on the system,” Prohaska said. “It’s a perfect storm.”

Even before the most recent stressors, rates of burnout and depression were on the rise among first responders. Rates of post-traumatic stress disorder are five times higher among police officers than among the civilian population. Some studies estimate that up to 30% of police officers have a substance use problem. Alcohol addiction tops the list. Last year alone, 138 law enforcement officers committed suicide, more than the 129 killed in the line of duty, according to the FBI. A recent report from the Ruderman Family Foundation suggests that police suicides are often underestimated due to stigma.

Harbor of Grace has a small campus of eight one-story brick buildings with light blue and yellow accents and looks more like a beachfront inn than a clinical setting. The center can treat 47 patients at a time. It has seven acute care beds, mainly for detoxification.

It offers help for a wide range of mental health issues, including addiction, sleep disorders, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and PTSD.

To date, more than 500 law enforcement agencies – federal, state and local – have sent employees to Harbor of Grace. The center has 45 full-time clinical staff, including an emergency physician and several psychiatrists, nurses and counsellors. Many have worked as first responders before – from army medics and firefighters to police officers.

On a recent morning in Harbor of Grace, the sun was burning over the Chesapeake Bay. A group of patients, mostly men and a few women in their thirties, gathered on the small patio. Some sat alone, while others stood in small groups chatting.

“We get all types, from all walks of life and at all stages of breakup,” said Beyer, 66, a former firefighter and EMT who overcame a drinking problem decades ago. “All of our patients and most of our staff know what it’s like to hold a dead or dying child,” he said.

sergeant. Ryan Close detained several dead children. The 37-year-old police officer works as a patrol supervisor for a small New England law enforcement agency which he declined to identify to protect the identities of his colleagues. He has been a police officer for 15 years and has worked for several departments. When he started, he said, officers had not received psychological training or access to designated peer support programs.

He said that almost every time he was involved in a critical incident – ​​like a shooting or an accident with burned and disfigured bodies – “my supervisor then ordered me to the bar.” One incident in particular stuck in his memory – when a young boy shot himself in the head with a gun. Washing away the horror with alcohol “was the culture of the time,” he said.

But Close wasn’t drinking much at the time and was mocked by his peers for only ordering small beers. It wasn’t until years later, when memories of his work experiences resurfaced and he was having trouble sleeping, that he began self-medicating with alcohol. He developed social anxiety and his marriage suffered.

His service pushed him to get help and he entered Harbor of Grace in April 2021 for a 28-day treatment cycle. There he learned to let go of his hardened veneer and his impulse to always be in control. He also saw many other cops struggling with this when they arrived at the center. “I’ve seen grown men throw a fit like a 6 year old because a member of staff wouldn’t let them use their cell phone.”

Many first responders develop heavy defense mechanisms and are “insecure, unconfident, controlling,” Beyer said. They often wait too long before asking for help, he added.

Police officers tend to be “very closed, very unwilling to be vulnerable,” Lerner said. But he finds that most first responders make model patients after taking the first steps. “At that point, they’re all there,” he said. “They don’t do anything by halves.”

At Harbor of Grace, the communication style reflects the tone of a police station or fire station, Beyer said. “We don’t waste time on feel-good stuff,” he said. “We are direct. We call people if necessary.

Psychologist Prohaska said it was important that there were specialized behavioral treatment centers for first responders. But, she said, there must also be better upstream investments — for practical initiatives that teach public safety employees resilience, like the one she developed for the Kansas City Police Department. .

Strong mental health training must be part of the academy’s curriculum and embedded in police culture, she added. “Just as we teach officers safety, we need to teach them resilience,” she said. “A two-hour PowerPoint course won’t be enough.”

Beyer expects the situation to get worse before it gets better. In the past two years, he has seen more police resign while in treatment. Previously, most returned to work. “Now, once they get the hang of it, many say, ‘I want to stay healthy, and the way to stay healthy is to get out of police work,'” he said.

Close decided to return to work in law enforcement. He has become an advocate for peer support in his agency and beyond. He said his own mental health journey has made him a better police officer, with more empathy and better communication skills.

His advice to fellow officers is to educate themselves on the possible effects of trauma before they develop a serious problem. Also, he says, “establish a good dialogue with your family, your supervisors, your peers. Know what your limits are. And learn healthy coping skills. Alcohol is not.

This article was produced by Kaiser Health Newsa program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, an endowed nonprofit organization that provides information on health issues to the nation.

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