NASHUA — More police officers today are dying by suicide than in the line of duty, a recent study found. But the way police departments address mental health is changing.
“This is our next big mountain to scale,” said David Goldstein, chief of the Franklin Police Department.
There is a renewed focus on first responders’ mental health after Nashua police Capt. Jon Lehto died by suicide on Sept. 9. Lehto was a 20-year veteran of the Nashua Police Department.
Once, Lehto’s death might not have been discussed. But as police departments are working to be more open about trauma and mental health, Chief Michael Carignan of the Nashua Police Department and Lehto’s family publicly announced that Lehto had died by suicide.
“What the chief has done, and what the Lehto family has done by coming forward with this is one of the bravest acts that I have ever seen,” said Goldstein. “This is going to open up conversation.”
It has taken decades, but efforts to recognize mental health concerns among first responders are finally seeing results, said Goldstein, who also serves on the advisory board for Veteran & First Responder Healthcare, which provides treatment for service members, first responders and their families who suffer from substance use and behavioral health disorders.
It is relatively common for police departments to help officers debrief after major incidents, but more departments are starting to deal with the piled-up stress of everyday police work that can lead to mental health challenges.
New Hampshire State Police have been at the vanguard of this movement. Just over 10 years ago, Maj. Russell Conte worked to start a peer support program for state troopers — individuals are trained to talk with other troopers about problems in their professional and personal lives. They can act as sounding boards for troopers working through issues, said Conte, who retired from the state police but returned to serve as health and wellness coordinator for the agency.
Importantly, Conte said, the peer counselors are trained to know when to refer a trooper to a mental health professional.
Col. Christopher Wagner, director of New Hampshire State Police, acknowledged that a national conversation has begun: “that law enforcement is hurting and law enforcement needs to do more to protect our people with mental health.” And he said his agency has become a national leader in that effort.
When he first took over as colonel three years ago, Wagner decided to make mental health a priority for the agency. So in addition to having the peer counselor program available, every trooper goes through an eight-hour training on the effects and signs of post-traumatic stress, and when and how to seek help.
The agency brought in a mental health expert to talk about human resilience and coping skills. And starting this year, all troopers will undergo a 40-hour crisis intervention training to help recognize the symptoms of mental illness and learn how to respond with compassion to an individual in crisis.
Troopers, Wagner said, see things “that quite honestly, people aren’t supposed to see,” such as terrible homicide scenes, fatal crashes and dead children.
“The days of suffering in silence are over,” he said. “We are an organization that appreciates the fact that we’re asking you to do a very, very difficult job, that it is going to change you, that you are going to be negatively impacted. And therefore, this division is going to stand behind you, stand with you, and provide you with resources ... and provide you a culture where you can raise your hand and ask for help.”
And Wagner said he’s certain that the strategy “is saving troopers’ lives.”
This more open way of dealing with mental health is relatively new, Conte said. The peer counseling unit has been in place just over a decade. While the idea is catching on in local police departments, including Nashua and Manchester, police and other first responders still tend to feel ashamed asking for help, he said.
“There’s that aura that first responders always have the clear head, they don’t have any problems — they come to solve your problems,” Conte said.
As a result, he said, police and other first responders have tended to pretend they aren’t struggling.
“Nobody gets a pass from emotion,” Conte said. “Nobody gets a pass from the trauma that they see. You would not be a human if that didn’t affect you.”
Police officers have also traditionally been reluctant to admit they are struggling, Conte said, because admitting to a mental health challenge could impact their careers.
“They are afraid to be labeled, which is what stigma is all about. If you were put on light duty or somebody removed your weapon, that could affect the rest of your career,” he said. “Will I be promoted? Will people trust me? Will I be of value to my coworkers?”
Ideally, Conte said, psychological injuries would be treated like physical injuries: “You go out, you take care of it, you come back. Everybody welcomes you back and you go on with your career.”
A good example of the trauma first responders encounter on the job, Wagner said, was the horrific crash in June that killed seven motorcyclists and left three others injured. Some of the troopers who responded are military veterans, he said, but they told him that scene was the worst thing they had ever seen. “So what comes with that is a lifetime of memories, a thing they don’t ever want to see again or relive, but they’re going to for the rest of their lives,” he said.
When he was a young trooper, Wagner said, he would have been expected to get back on the road right away after something like that. Today, he said, the troopers go through a critical incident debriefing with a clinician, and if they need more help, they’ll get it.
As open discussion of mental health becomes normal — cadets now undergo training with NAMI New Hampshire, the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness — the younger generation of first responders will be more willing to accept help and use mental health services, Conte said. “I feel they’re going to have a better career, and a peaceful retirement,” he said.
Wagner noted there’s a national shortage of people entering law enforcement. “So the more we can do to reassure those that are joining the profession that they’ll be taken care of, the better off we will be,” he said.
Rik Cornell, vice president for community relations at the Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester, said his agency offers classes in “mental health first aid” and “trauma stewardship” that can help people recognize signs of distress and learn how to get better.
Cornell also urged first responders to reach out to their local mental health centers if they want to talk to someone. “We’re there for them,” he said. “We’re not just there for the people that come in our door for treatment.”
Conte said he was heartened to see how Nashua police addressed Lehto’s death. “There should be no shame,” he said. “This person had a wonderful career, they mattered and they did an honorable job.”
Carignan said the Nashua Police Department and the Lehto family believed that being open about Lehto’s death could help open conversations about mental health. And that could help others — which would be the best way to remember Lehto.
“Jon spent his career helping people,” Carignan said in a statement. “We are hopeful that by not remaining silent about Jon’s death by suicide, we can honor who he truly was and encourage others to reach out for help.”