‘This stuff really affects us;’ FWPD develops peer support teams to encourage mental health

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FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – The Fort Wayne Police Department are the first responders to many fatal and gruesome calls throughout the area. Many of those have occurred throughout the last few months. Once on scene police try to piece together crime scenes to bring resolution to situations. Over the last decade, research has shown that officers encounter traumatic instances and there is a tremendous need for immediate health services for officers.

A critical incident is defined as anything that overwhelms someone’s normal and natural coping mechanisms and impacts the ability to function. FWPD has in place a peer support team of 22 officers that offer critical incident stress management services. All officers part of the team work different shifts and in different divisions throughout the departments. This program has been in place for about two and a half years.

Training for these peer support teams include peer support, crisis intervention, and how to help officers after critical instances and how to recognize symptoms of critical stress in each other. Officers also learn active listening skills. Peer support teams are not counselors themselves, however are there because they can relate to someone that finds themselves in similar situations.

“Research has shown that peer teams like this are more effective than somebody going to a random stranger sometimes because that stranger can’t relate to someone that’s already been there before. We have a full list of various resources in our community that provide counseling for officers, some provide it free which is very generous. There’s always that stigma with mental health that if you ask for help you look weak or you might not get a promotion or you might not get a specialty assignment, so we provide confidential services so people feel comfortable seeking help,” Chris Felton, FWPD peer support team coordinator says.

For larger instances such as the Gay Street quadruple homicide, the Fort Wayne Police Department partners with Northeast Indiana Critical Instant Stress Management team and hosts a debriefing with the officers involved in those kinds of situations. Peer support officers also reach out to one another, share resources, and give struggling officers signs to look for and be aware of with how they are coping.

“While we are at the scene we may seem very callous and unemotional but we have to separate emotions from doing our job and bringing justice to families. After leaving those scenes is sometimes when those emotions come to the surface. It almost becomes normal for us to put emotions aside and then we start thinking, ‘nothing bothers us’ until some incident happens that is our boiling point and everything comes to the surface,” Felton explains.

Felton says police also have an anonymous referral system that people in the force as well as family members can utilize to ensure the health and safety of officers. The public can also do their part and help.

“If you know an officer and you know they went through a traumatic event, check on them say we’re thinking of you we know that must have been hard. Just recognize policing in general, we are humans, we do have emotions and just let us know that you’re thinking of the officers and support them. All these incidents affect us, I mean we’re humans, we’re not robots. it’s not TV where we show up investigate something and leave and go on with our day, go party I mean this stuff really affects us, affects people,” Felton says.

Felton says that research shows if officers know what to expect or if you know what is normal, that does a good job preventing mental disorders later on. He also says that there can never be too much training on mental health and how to take care of officers.

Felton says, “with the current climate, defunding the police is detrimental to mental health. You don’t want officers out there who are suffering from incidences, that’s not a good situation for this community and for other officers. You can never have too much training in mental health.”

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