Police union wellness center hopes to stem rising officer suicide rate

By Zeta Cross

(The Center Square) – The suicide rate for Chicago police is higher than in other big cities, with seven CPD officers dying by suicide last year. That’s more than 2020 and 2021 combined.

Now, the Fraternal Order of Police, the labor union representing front-line Chicago cops, has an option for its members.

The group has developed part of its building at 1412 West Washington into the First Responders Wellness Center, a clinic run by former first responders who are mental health professionals.

“It’s prevention,” Dr. Carrie Steiner, a psychologist and former police officer working at the wellness center, told The Center Square. “We want to see how they are doing. They get to meet us and look around. So if something does happen, they know us and they can reach out.”

Most officers develop a game face. It’s hard for people to know when officers are struggling, Steiner said.

“If that ‘suck it up, buttercup’ attitude worked, we wouldn’t have high suicide rates, high alcoholism, and divorce rates,” Steiner said.

She wants officers to come in to talk – even for life’s regular problems.

“If something is going on with their kid, I want them to come in for one or two visits, if that’s all they need,” Steiner said. Fortunately, Chicago police have good health insurance and mental health coverage, she said.

Mental health is as important as physical health, Steiner said.

“I often say, ‘If you get shot, would you go to a doctor?’ People say, ‘Of course.’ Well, when an officer is involved in a critical incident, they should have a psychologist look at it,’” Steiner said.

The day-to-day grind can wear anybody down, she said. When the job involves homicides and trauma, Steiner said, that is a lot for anybody.

Shift work and the demands of being a first responder make it hard to get enough rest, Steiner said.

“Lack of sleep is correlated with suicide,” she said, adding that 60% of officers have sleep apnea or some other sleep issues.

When Steiner was on the Chicago police force, she often worked the 4 p.m. to midnight shift.

“If there is a late arrest and the officer has to wait to get charges approved, or if there is a lot of evidence to inventory, that can take until 2 a.m. or later. That doesn’t change the shift for the next day. The officer still has to show up for court at 9 a.m. They wind up with a significant sleep deficit that can make the world look more gloomy than it is,” she said.

Talking to officers about the importance of “self-care” is a little easier than it was in 2010 when she began practicing, Steiner said. But the message to take the need for sleep seriously is still hard for officers to hear.

“It’s not just foo-foo stuff,” she tells them. “When people put in some effort to take better care of themselves, they feel much better and they can handle more stressors.”

Loved ones can look for warning signs. Lack of interest in things, being less involved with people and things that they care about, those are indicators that something may be wrong, Steiner said.

“Maybe they say, ‘It wouldn’t matter if I was here or not’ … Maybe they take a little more risk at work … Or maybe they don’t polish their shoes as much,” she said.

Steiner advises to ask questions and don’t take it for granted that everything is fine.

“People say things and we don’t want to jump the gun, but at the same time, look for other things that might be going on,” she advised.

Watch out for hopelessness. Hopelessness is a warning sign for suicide, she said.

“When someone says, ‘If I get divorced, that’s it. My life is over.’ That’s a really bad sign,” Steiner said.

The officer may be convinced that there is no future for them, she said.

“If a person is thinking about maybe going to therapy, they should go to therapy,” Steiner said.

“It’s much better than ending up getting divorced or getting a DUI or developing further depression,” she said.

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