I should acknowledge at the outset of this piece that I was no stranger to therapy before I became a police officer. My parents got divorced when I was young, and I got sent to a children’s therapist to help me out. I was in therapy on and off up until high school, mostly just to talk about things. It became pretty routine, and I didn’t really give it a second thought until I became a police officer.
As police officers, it’s ingrained in us that showing weakness is a sin. Weakness can get you hurt or compromised. For many years, “therapy” for cops was done at the bar after your shift, where you talked about the things you saw and handled. And even then, with liquid courage, we still weren’t really honest and open about our fears or concerns. I vividly remember in the weeks after 9/11, the NYPD had therapists come and lead sessions for all the precincts before your scheduled tour of duty. Ours was held at a police athletic league and consisted of 30–40 officers sitting in a circle. A really quiet circle. When the person from Columbia asked if people wanted to talk about anything, no one did. And these are cops who had been through one of the most traumatic events easily of their lives, and no one said anything.
Their silence wasn’t just due to the perception of being soft among their colleagues, it was also out of fear for their employer. The rumor was that if you were open about troubles you were having, that psych services would take your gun away. The funny thing about guns is that while they’re probably the tool we use least out of all of them, the gun is what makes you the police. No disrespect to our friends across the pond, but we’ve grown up on a diet of television and media that says without a gun, you’re just a person in an ill-fitting dark uniform.
NYPD has a terrific peer support program called Police Officers Providing Peer Assistance (POPPA). It operates a confidential hotline where cops can pick up the phone and speak to other cops 24/7/365 about anything really. You’re not trained as a counselor or a social worker, but your job is to listen and support those cops who are in need. The idea being that it’s easier to confide things to someone who is in your shoes than to just Google “therapists.” The training was incredible, and while I left the department before taking my first call, it was an experience I’ll never forget.
I remember asking the clinical director for the program during the training about therapy and cops. And he said that in his experience, cops don’t want psychoanalysis or to be asked, “how does that make you feel?” He said that cops don’t like the idea of being in therapy, and so they come with a specific problem or challenge, and they want direct feedback and to know that this isn’t going to be a forever thing. He mentioned that there was a woman he liked to refer cops to, and so I made an appointment as the peer support training made me realize it would be a good idea to talk with someone again.
I met Geri in Brooklyn at her office for my first session, and within 20 minutes of me sitting down, she told me that I was full of shit, and I knew I had found the right person to be with. She was incredibly helpful over the six months that I saw her, and it made me realize how impactful seeing the right person can be. Therapy is unique in that you need to connect with the person you’re seeing. You need to be upfront about your expectations and your needs for the sessions you’re entering into. There’s no need to feel bad about finding someone else if you’re not clicking with the person you’re seeing. This is all about you.
We’ve come a long way from bars being temples for cop therapy. Sadly, many of these changes in beliefs about mental health have come from the number of officers who have taken their own life. A 2018 study showed that cops are more likely to take their own life than be killed in the line of duty. The events in Washington, D.C., on January 6 showed this with one officer being killed that day and two officers committing suicide in the weeks after the attack on the Capitol. Chief Robert Contee, acting chief of the Metropolitan Police Department in D.C., in a video message to the department after January 6, encouraged officers to talk to family, friends, clergy and therapists about what they were feeling. This is heartening to hear and see. Officers need to hear and see their leadership discussing mental health, as many chiefs have.
Recently, I was on a call for suicidal threats, and the subject explained that he didn’t stay in therapy because they wanted him to take medication. At one point on the call, it was just him, myself and another officer in the room, and the young man asked us if he should take medicine. And I replied that I couldn’t tell him what to do but that I take meds for anxiety, and they have been a huge help to me. He ended up accepting treatment, and I hope he gets the help he needs. We need more honesty around this taboo topic, and we don’t need to wait for tragedy to bring it to the forefront.
Need help? Click https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org or call 800-273-8255