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Longmont Police Hope to Make In-house Psychologist Full-time with Grant

January 20, 2019
From left: Psychologist Marilyn Meyers, Longmont Police Department peer support coordinator Sean Harper and Longmont Fire Department peer support coordinator Janet Harty

Longmont police have applied for a $150,000 grant so they can employ their clinical supervisor full-time as well as subsidize outside mental health services for officers.

Sgt. Sean Harper said switching from a clinical advisor model to a clinical supervisor model, in which the department has an in-house psychologist who can provide one-on-one sessions, has improved the peer support team’s work. But, he said, Dr. Marilyn Meyers needs to work full-time, instead of her current part-time hours, to fully serve the department.

Harper advocates for mental health resources in police departments because it’s the responsible thing to do.

“How many times in your life have you pulled up to a car accident and gotten out and seen a mutilated body?” he said. “We are asked, as a profession, to do things that are unfair . . . We have a responsibility to the community that we do these tasks to the best of our abilities.”

First responders also have a responsibility, Harper said, to both themselves and the community, to take care of their mental health due to the trauma associated with the job.

The number of law enforcement officer deaths by suicide in 2012 nationally was twice as high as deaths by traffic accident s or felonious assaults, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Justice. Researchers also found in one survey that career firefighters had much higher rates of suicidal ideation and attempts than the general population.

“I don’t think you get to see those things over and over again and remain mentally healthy without working on it,” he said, adding that, “A cop that is mentally fit is going to do a better job in any situation.”

“Culturally competent”

After his first four years as a law enforcement officer in Longmont, Harper said he noticed a shift in his perspective that he didn’t like.

Harper was seeing the same people out on the streets during his patrolling shifts, he said, but he was thinking of them differently.

“People aren’t calling us when things are going well in their lives,” he said, and the difficult situations he dealt with every day as an officer were beginning to make him more cynical.

To fix this issue, Harper started the peer support team, which was formalized in 2010 with the help and training of police psychologist and former law enforcement officer Dr. Jack Digliani.

Officers on the peer support team reach out to those who seem to be going through a rough spot, and likewise are there for officers who need someone to talk with. In the team’s early days, peer support officers could recommend their peers to the employee assistance program or talk with them about using insurance to access tools like therapy.

However, those options were often cumbersome. It could take as long as three months to get from a referral to an initial therapy appointment. Finding a time that matched both a regular therapist’s schedule and a first responder’s was difficult. And the department’s health insurance wouldn’t let them schedule appointments more than two weeks in advance.

In 2016, the department hired Meyers to work in-house. She now works 20 hours (or more) per week, and has made a great difference for the peer support team and the department.

“A constant theme that I have found throughout my career . . . is a counselor that is treating a first responder has to be culturally competent in that field,” Harper said.

While he said most therapists are well-intended, those who haven’t worked with first responders before can create more aggravation than therapy. Some have asked Harper why he doesn’t just quit law enforcement, and other therapists will start crying when they listen to traumatic stories.

Since Meyers has joined, Harper no longer has to point peers to their health insurance or the employee assistance program. He can point directly toward her and be confident that she’ll understand what the officer is going through. His time spent supporting peers has actually decreased as a result, he said.

“It’s just a wonderful thing that I can do now,” he said. “Marilyn is far more highly trained in this area.”

Decades of experience

Meyers is culturally competent in the law enforcement world, after working with those in public safety for about 25 years. She did a placement with Dr. John Nicoletti, a national expert in police psychology, where she served departments across Colorado. She interned at the Colorado Division of Veterans Affairs. She primarily worked with law enforcement in her private practice.

The two things Meyers noticed most in her work, she said, were the stigma around acknowledgingthe need for help and the lack of benefits available for first responders after traumatic events.

Both Meyers and Harper worked on legislation to help change the latter. A bill was passed in 2017 that clarified when workers could receive workers’ compensation for traumatic events, making it easier for law enforcement to receive treatment for stress-related injuries and critical incidents.

Funding from another piece of legislation, which encouraged law enforcement offices to create mental health policies, is going toward the grant that Longmont hopes to win.

At her current position, Meyers provides training and advice to the Longmont peer support team and offers one-on-one sessions with first responders, including firefighters. She also advises a peer support team for all city workers.

She also responds to “crisis incidents,” such as officer-involved shootings, to receive briefings and be available for immediate support. When officers see her there, Meyers said, they know they won’t need to explain the event again.

However, Harper said that it’s impossible to expect one psychologist to work for everyone in the department. The hope is that the grant will allow the department to cover the costs or copays for officers seeking mental health services, or psychiatric services such as medication.

A proactive approach

The clinical supervisor support allows the department to be proactive and attend to post-traumatic stress symptoms before they develop into a disorder. The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which provides the standard classification of disorders, says it takes about 30 days for the symptoms to turn into PTSD.

“It’s pretty exciting, because usually people come to me after they have developed a problem,” Meyers said. In her current role, she can prevent significant issues from arising.

For example, the department’s reintegration program for officers involved in shootings mandates that they visit Meyers several times over the course of a year.

The majority of Meyers’ time during the week is spent in one-on-one sessions with first responders, the majority of whom come from the police department.

The grant money would also allow the department to cover the costs of mental health services outside of Meyers. No one psychologist is the right fit for everyone, Harper said, and the department can’t expect Meyers to work for everyone.

The money could help cover out-of-network providers or co-pays for therapists, as well as psychiatric services, like medication.

If Longmont receives funding to make her full-time, the department plans to mandate that all officers visit Meyers at least once per year, to help break the stigma of receiving mental health services.

“When people know they need help and they’re doing it, that’s the best thing,” Harper said.

All new officers also meet with Meyers so they understand how the peer support team system works and know what services are available to them. A few months later, Meyers usually sees those officers again, wanting to talk about some of the difficult calls they’ve been on.

“It’s changing the culture and the stigma,” she said.

Meyers also wants to develop family-oriented programs to help family of first responders work together. She anticipates that her work could help ultimately save the city money.

After about five years on the job, officers often become “disgruntled” and lose sight of why they chose the profession, she said. If she can help people manage those feelings and the difficulties of the job, she could save money on training.

Meyers currently makes about $4,000 per month, and it’s anticipated her salary would double.

Madeline St. Amour: 303-684-5212, mstamour@prairiemountainmedia.com

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