© 2021 Maine Public
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Beneath The Stoicism: Maine Police Face The Toll Trauma Takes On Their Ranks

LM Otero
Associated Press File

Police officers have shorter life spans than the rest of us, are more prone to suicide, but for years, a stoic police culture has made it difficult for many to admit they may struggle with mental health issues.

This week, officers from around Maine are attending a three-day training in Orono that focuses on how to maintain their mental balance, given the stressful conditions of their work. And law enforcement and mental health workers in Maine are in the vanguard of new efforts to improve the psychological well-being of first responders.

Editor's note: Some content might not be suitable for a younger audience.

A lot of cops will tell you that there's one kind of duty that is just the worst - attending the autopsy of a baby who has died, maybe in an accident, maybe at the hands of an adult.

"It's not normal, to watch someone cut open an infant. It's not," says a detective from central Maine, specializes in crimes against children, and who asked not to be identified. "I won't forget the first time because it was like, OK, it looked like a doll, like it was ...  you know ... It took a couple days for me to realize,  'No, that was a fleshy, human child.' "

It's a haunting experience, she says, compounded by the effects of other investigations, from domestic violence to sexual assault to child abuse. 

Exposure to trauma, and a repeated flood of stress hormones, are basic working conditions for a detective.  But, as with many police whose training tells them to project strength, her instinct was to suck it up, to hide any suffering from the world.

"And they don't realize that you're having a bad day because you can't get an image out of your head. Or certain smells are making you think of things that you don't want to see," she says.

Playing the stoic came at a cost.  She gained weight, ate poorly, smoked a lot. She needed surgery for back pain and developed severe ulcers. At times she found herself gripped by anger she didn't quite understand. 

Such are the factors that contribute to making police prone to an earlier death and higher rates of suicide than most Americans.

"They are so committed to protecting and serving, that the idea of showing vulnerability to the population that they are committed to protecting and serving was just not realistic," says Jenna Mehnert, executive director of the Maine chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which is co-sponsoring the Orono training this week.

Mehnert says there are many fears that can keep cops from disclosing their mental health challenges: a loss of respect among peers or the public, damage to their careers, maybe even lawyers challenging their competency in court.

To help struggling officers find professional help, NAMI is organizing a cadre of clinical social workers willing to provide officers utmost confidentiality - including an agreement not to respond to subpoenas for clinical notes.

And Mehnert says NAMI's also posted a list of officers willing to provide confidential peer support for fellow-cops who are struggling, "Because nobody even knows who you talk to," she says. "It's completely confidential. It's obviously not even therapy but it can be really impactful in people's lives."

And some clinical social workers who want to help are also learning to adjust their practices to accommodate the unique experiences police bring to their offices. 

"For example I have a policy when clients come to see me: 'Don't bring guns,' " Mehnert says. My exception are law enforcement."

Paul Pinette, of Saco, often works with police and is leading NAMI seminars to help colleagues understand that the cumulative effects of stress and exposure to trauma require a different approach to therapy.

"You have to understand the lens of the experience of this repeated exposure," Pinette says. "You come to think that most everybody can be a bad guy - it becomes harder to tell who's a good guy and a bad guy. And some of that is for the purpose of survival, which is really actually kind of useful in understanding that they may always be potentially under threat even if they are off-duty and understanding that this isn't paranoia, this is the result of the work that they do."

For the central Maine detective whose mental and physical health suffered, the road to recovery started with peers - and, after a while, formal therapy. And after years of work, she says she's doing well, and taking. Last year she hiked Mt. Katahdin for the first time.

"Hiked the whole thing. The whole thing. Knife's Edge," she says. "But, you know, I gotta tell you, it really made me feel like I could do anything. It really did. I'm doing it again next year."

She says support from her department heads was a vital part of her return to health. Experts in and out of law enforcement say a proactive approach by chiefs and the institutions they represent could be the single most important element of improving cops' mental health. So it's worth noting that this week's free training in Orono is co-sponsored by the Penobscot County Sheriff's Office.