After a recent string of Chicago police officer suicides, mental health experts spoke with a City Council committee Thursday afternoon on what can be done to support officers.
Alexa James, CEO of the Chicago chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said her organization has been working with the Chicago Police Department since 2004 on crisis intervention training, and through that partnership identified a need to offer mental health support to officers.
Officers are more likely to lose their lives to suicide than any other manner of death in the line of duty, James told the council’s committee on public safety. More than 10 Chicago police officers have died by suicide since 2018.
“Factors that contribute to these deaths are complex,” she said. “Police officers and firefighters have high rates of unsteadiness in the workplace. They experienced continual trauma. They also experienced physical injuries that impact their mental wellness. This is unfortunately the perfect recipe for officers feeling hopeless, and some using substances to manage stress and trauma response — both of which are major predictors of suicide.”
Law enforcement culture has focused on “toughening up,” and this has prevented officers from seeking out services, James said. To counter this, there needs to be “significant investment and resources dedicated to a comprehensive wellness strategy,” she said.
Elena Gottreich, the city’s deputy mayor of public safety, told the committee the mayor’s office recognizes the need to protect the predictability of officers’ schedules, while also balancing the need to protect the public. The state issued a $10 million grant to the city for costs associated with first-responder wellness programs.
“There has been a significant amount of reform within the Police Department, and I think if you talk to many police officers, they have positively benefited from these reforms and from the fact that this is a more open conversation,” Gottreich said.
Ald. Silvana Tabares, 23rd, asked how officers are supposed to use the mental health programs available for them when their days off are canceled.
Gottreich said canceled days off have been “pared down significantly,” but there were extra days off canceled throughout spring and summer, which have now been scaled back. Even while on the job, officers have access to some of these resources.
Tina Skahill, CPD’s director of policing and reform, said professional counselors attend roll calls and talk to officers about taking care of themselves. Ranking supervisors have also been trained to recognize when officers need time to take care of their wellness.
James said that while she applauds the Police Department’s peer support program and clinical program, she has heard from focus groups that officers need other forms of support and wellness, such as stability in supervisors. She also said she learned that access to therapy can be tricky because it is difficult 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 consistently that make officers feel supported. I think that it’s hearing people’s trauma and owning what that must feel like for them.”
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Dr. Robert Sobel, director of CPD’s professional counseling division, said that within the last year the budget has 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 job applicants for the open positions, but they were turned down partly due to 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 is a mental health workforce shortage and the city is competing for candidates going into private practice and looking to work telehealth from home.
Lopez said the city is missing the mark even with its commitment toward getting clinicians in each district.
“No one takes lightly the job that our officers do,” Lopez said. “You have some work to do. And we shouldn’t just be sitting by because real lives are in danger.”
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