New initiative launched to support mental health of public safety professionals

Published 2:39 pm Tuesday, July 25, 2023

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Eleven Minnesota organizations recently launched a partnership to support public safety professionals suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. Called MN Public Safety Wellness Initiative, the partnership is designed to bring attention to the high number of firefighters and law enforcement leaving the workforce, according to a League of Minnesota Cities press release.

The group hopes increased awareness and support from statewide programs could help solve the problem and provide public safety professionals with education and support.

The Albert Lea Department of Public Safety has its own policies related to the mental health of its employees, according to J.D. Carlson, director of public safety, and Darren Hanson, deputy chief of police.

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“Going back several years we’ve tried to take care of our people,” Hanson said. “And we’ve kind of taken the approach that wellness is a holistic thing, it’s not just mental health, it’s not just physical health, it’s a whole bunch of different things,” Hanson said. “We try to focus on the wellness as a whole unit.”

That included bringing in speakers to discuss financial wellness, doctors to discuss shift work and incorporating a chaplain program. Three years ago they also added a “Check Up From the Neck Up” program, where every member of the department meets with a psychologist to talk about anything that may stress them, whether at home or on the job.

“It doesn’t take a state mandate to motivate our department to pursue the wellness of our officers,” Carlson said. “Even prior to this, the state’s mandated for years just to have our post-license employment screenings. We have to have psychological evaluations. It really starts there.”

Every officer is required to have 48 hours of training every three years, though Hanson said in the case of the Albert Lea Police Department, most officers were above the state-mandate when it came time to renew their post-license, though only about 16 of those hours were spent on mental health training.

“Not all of it is geared towards the officer itself,” Hanson said. “Some of it is, but some of it is geared towards mental health training towards people in crisis.”

Carlson described the training as “mental awareness” on dealing with citizens. But it’s not just mental health training.

There’s the physical wellness aspect and making sure officers sleep well.

“What we see is if people aren’t sleeping good, every part of their life starts to decay and fall apart,” Hanson said. “If you’re not sleeping good, it’s hard to be healthy in a lot of other areas in your life.”

Currently, officers are on a combination of eight-, 10- and 12-hour shifts.

If a critical incident such as a shooting occurs, officers involved are also required to go through another evaluation prior to returning.

And for traumatic calls, including the recent homicide of a 2-year-old, they’ll do a critical stress incident debrief.

“We bring all the people involved, they can talk about it and hopefully help them process it so they can deal with it in an appropriate way,” Hanson said.

There’s also training on managing people with autism and de-escalation.

The fire department also has its own resources, including chaplain services and utilizing the state for a “Check Up From the Neck Up” program.

He noted mental health was not just at the forefront of their staff, but also citizens.

“The mental health situation that we’re in, a lot of the people we deal with when we were going to calls are in some level of mental health crisis,” Hanson said.

Carlson said the state was now recognizing the other half of the mental health crisis, while Hanson said a big reason for the initiative was in response to what happened in the metro following the death of George Floyd.

“Minneapolis lost many, many officers to PTSD diagnoses,” Hanson said. “I think the state’s looking, ‘How can we better take care of these people, how can we be good stewards of the police officers, give them what they need to succeed.’”

According to Carlson, the police department was seeing officers leave in search of a “calmer” career, and currently the department is short-staffed. That problem was not exclusive to Albert Lea.

“Recruiting is a national-wide issue in law enforcement,” Hanson said. “Just about every department in the country is short-staffed and looking to recruit people.”

He was also on-board with the MN Public Safety Wellness Initiative.

“It’s a positive sign that they’re realizing there’s a problem here and we can do better,” he said.

All that said, Carlson was appreciative of the local support, and wanted to let the community know how much that went not just individually but as a team.

District 23A Rep. Peggy Bennett described it as a “great initiative.”

“PTSD and related mental health for our first responders is a very real issue,” she said. “It’s been growing a lot, these fields are becoming more and more stressful, and of course that affects the mental health of the people working.”

And while the organizations collaborating are state agencies, she didn’t see the Legislature needing to take any control and applauded everyone who came together.

The MN Public Safety Wellness Initiative is made up of the League of Minnesota Cities, Metro Cities, the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association, the National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota, the Minnesota Association of Small Cities, the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association, the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training, the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, the Minnesota Inter-County Association, the Association of Minnesota Counties and Government Human Resources Professionals.