Laramie Police Talk Mental Health in Tough Career
“You’re not 10 feet tall and made of steel. You’re not,” said Lieutenant Gwen Smith of the Laramie Police Department.
Stigma is the disease, it seems, that’s responsible for a lot of suicides in Wyoming. As we continue Suicide Awareness Month in September in the state with the highest rate of suicide, the LPD discussed stigma and mental health.
Smith said when she started her policing career over 30 years ago, when officers were called to potentially traumatic scenes, “You didn’t ever want to let it show that it affected you. You’d go have drinks after work. And that would somehow be the answer.”
“When I started…if you retired after 20 years, the majority of officers didn’t live for 10 years after retiring. I watched through my career a number of really exceptional law enforcement officers and highway patrolmen who were good at their jobs and good people…get their lives destroyed.”
Thirty years ago, mental health wasn’t at the forefront of most people’s minds, let alone first responders, who were supposed to be “tougher” than the rest. Smith said thankfully someone said, “It’s not good for people to see a lot of really bad things without getting it off their chests.”
Now, the LPD has a series of wellness tools for their officers and staff. One of those is a mandatory Debrief for any person involved in a traumatic call, from the dispatcher to the officers.
A counselor is called, made aware of the call, and all are gathered into a classroom to talk about it. Smith said the meeting is mandatory to help decrease the stigma.
“You don’t get to choose, because if you get to choose, you’re going to look around and see who’s not going, and if they don’t seem to have an issue, then you shouldn’t talk about yours.”
The tough-guy mentality, Smith said, gets dismantled at the LPD in the name of mental health.
“The newer officers who haven’t been are a little more hesitant to attend until they see everyone else attending. Our officers after years of this, understand the importance of this process, for both themselves and the person next to them. It’s about the team.
“I believe, from what I have seen, that it makes a huge difference in people’s mental health. Because one, if they know it affects them, it’s probably affecting somebody else. You’re all feeling something…it’s helpful to know others are, too.”
Former Chief Dale Stalder began the mandatory debriefing process, and Chief Brian Browne is continuing it. “He said ‘That sounds great. If that’s what you’re used to, then that’s what we’ll do. He’s a very supportive Chief. He has a true concern for every single person in our department.”
The City of Laramie also provides a number of free counseling sessions to officers; the LPD has a contract with a mental professional group in Cheyenne for further free sessions, provides mindset/wellness training to new officers, and utilize the Chaplain regularly–he will ride around with officers who “Just need someone to talk to, and it’s really nice,” Smith said.
“We’re working really hard because statistically, you don’t come out of this career very well…I’m really proud of them.”