Trauma can be cumulative throughout a career in law enforcement. While first responders rush to help, they’re often the last to find help for themselves.
The deadly shooting last Friday in Fargo that left a rookie police officer dead, and three other people — including two police officers — injured, comes just as the state of Minnesota launches a new mental health initiative for public safety professionals. It’s called the MN Public Safety Wellness Initiative, or “Accept, Prevent, Treat” campaign, and it aims to ensure all law enforcement prioritize and take care of their mental fitness while preventing a mass exodus from the profession over untreated mental health concerns.
One of the people to spearhead that effort is Jeff Potts, of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association. He was a guest on Morning Edition with Cathy Wurzer.
The following is a transcript of the conversation, lightly edited for clarity. Listen to the full conversation using the audio player above.
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Given your own experience in law enforcement, explain what the first responder community goes through when one of their own is killed in the line of duty.
I think every officer in the state when they hear about this, it makes them really think about how dangerous this job is. And we started this campaign really to help police officers and first responders in general. It says “accept, prevent and treat,” but really understand that there’s a lot of trauma in a career in public safety. Police officers being involved in shooting cases where one of your partners is killed is just one of the … types of situations that causes trauma. And we launched this campaign to try to help the community understand that we’re trying to figure out how to deal with that [trauma].
In the last decade or so I think law enforcement has really realized that you have to do some prevention efforts throughout your career. But also know that when you’re really severely affected by this trauma, that there’s help out there; you can get treatment, and in most cases, you can come back and continue your career.
So in the past, officers were not trained to deal with the symptoms of PTSD, depression or other problems that can pop up in the aftermath of a traumatic event?
There wasn’t a lot of training available, there was not a lot of awareness about how bad this trauma can be throughout your career. I think everybody knew that the work of public safety is dangerous. But until the last decade or so we didn’t really realize all of the the impact of that trauma. But now that we know that, there are tools out there that are available for first responders that can help prevent the impact of that trauma.
What is known about the effects of untreated PTSD among officers?
Well, I think that what we’ve learned is it can be cumulative throughout your career. And so now you’re hearing and seeing a real kind of resurgence of attention on this issue. Mental health checkups on an annual basis to help process that trauma throughout your career, can be a really effective way to make sure that you’re doing everything you can to keep your mind as healthy as you can.
Think about it like fitness, physical fitness, where we always encourage our officers and first responders to stay physically fit. But this is really now shifting that focus to including being mentally fit. And that includes annual kind of check-ins. And if you need more than just to check-in, you can set up additional appointments with a mental health professional to process that trauma, so it doesn’t continue to accumulate like it would if it was not treated.
So that's the ‘prevent’ part of the campaign and the ‘treat’ part as well.
Right. The “prevent” part is really being proactive about your mental health throughout your career, having a program in your agency where you do mental health checkups and some other things. The “treat” component is when there is a significant exposure, a significant amount of trauma that’s starting to affect you, that we want our first responders to know that there is help out there, there’s healing possible. In most cases — even if you have PTSD — with proper treatment, you can treat and resume a normal, healthy career. In the last few years, we’ve seen way too many people leave because of a duty disability because they didn’t know or they were unable to get that treatment.
What agencies are working on this?
Well, there are 12 different organizations that are part of this campaign and the Minnesota Chiefs Association is just one of them. The MN Public Safety Wellness Initiative also includes the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association; National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota; League of Minnesota Cities; Metro Cities; Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association; Minnesota Association of Small Cities; Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training; Minnesota Inter-County Association; Association of Minnesota Counties; Peer Support Advisory Board; and the First Responder Chaplain Division of the Spiritual Care Association.
We are all part of this group that came up with this and founded this initiative in 2022, to really bring more awareness about this issue and really put the tools in place to help first responders better deal with the trauma that they accumulate over a career. And really, if they have a significantly traumatic experience that leads to PTSD, that just know that there is help out there and healing is possible with the proper treatment.
We just don’t want to see these folks leave their career. You know, it’s really hard to find people to do this work now. And so that kind of compounds the issue, but we want our folks to know that there is help out there, that healing is possible. With the proper treatment, you can get back to work and resume your healthy and normal career.