Pennington County Sheriff’s Office creates peer support team for its officers
RAPID CITY, S.D. — The conversation about mental health and suicide has increased significantly over the past few years, and law enforcement has joined the discussion, internally.
Law enforcement officers respond to suicide and fatal calls regularly, and it takes a toll.
“The average person doesn’t see and deal with the things that we see on a regular basis, so there is a cumulative affect to seeing that trauma and seeing those types of images,” said Sgt. Jason Mitzel of the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office. “There is a cumulative PTSD that is accrued over time, and if we don’t deal with that, then certainly that can also lead to law enforcement who may think about committing suicide as well.”
Rapid City agencies have put an increased focus on the overall health and well-being of officers, to include the addition of a wellness program, peer support team, and agency psychologist.
“Police suicides, law enforcement officers who take their own lives is greater than that of line of duty deaths,” said PCSO wellness program director, Corey Brubakken. “And also, correctional officers are twice as likely as the general population and law enforcement officers to take their own lives.”
Officers impacted by extreme circumstances can meet with the support team to debrief after a traumatic event and find healthy coping mechanisms.
“Early intervention is so important, and so effective, but unfortunately it’s not commonly practiced,” said Dr. Roger Belisle, PhD., LP. “There is a lot of officers and first responders that die by their own hands, and more so than in the line of duty because they don’t have the available resources.”
Started in April of 2020, the peer group has already made a great impact on the Sheriff’s Office.
“It’s very important as our agency to have that open communication, but also there’s a huge component of confidentiality,” said Sgt. Jeremy Milstead. “Which is what really builds on the program itself. Gives people the freedom to talk to us without worrying that it’s gonna go another direction or something else is gonna happen with it.”
Officers have become more open to talking about their struggles and finding ways to support each other through traumatic events and life.
“Because for years, the stigma, law enforcement, you gotta be big and tough, just keep it in and swallow it down, swallow it down, swallow it down,” said Mitzel. “If you release a little of that pressure it kinda helps just get the weight of your shoulders and be able to talk about that.”