KYPCIS Expanding to Meet Identified Needs
“Do you want the guy who has your back to be in the best condition, physically and mentally? Do you want him or her to have the ability to make the best, sound decisions?” Department of Criminal Justice Training Deputy Commissioner John McGuire asked.
“You want the person who is making runs with you, who has your back, to be completely concentrating on the task at hand,” he continued. “Because ultimately it could mean his life or your life. But if you care for the people you work with, you want them to be as happy as they can be, living fulfilled lives.”
Caring about Kentucky’s officers and dispatchers goes beyond their tactical skills and call-response abilities. Caring about the holistic health of Kentucky responders is what led to the development of Kentucky’s Law Enforcement Professional Development and Wellness Program – the umbrella under which the Kentucky Post-Critical Incident Seminar (KYPCIS) now resides.
First responders’ mental health needs are receiving growing attention both statewide and nationally. Federal legislators passed the Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act in 2017, and KYPCIS was unanimously supported by Kentucky legislators and signed into law by Gov. Matt Bevin in 2018.
KYPCIS is a three-day seminar led by mental health professionals trained to work with peace officers and dispatchers who have experienced a critical incident. It is driven by a team of law enforcement and dispatch peers who have experienced critical incidents and received training in Critical Incident Stress Management.
KYPCIS is growing through conversations between attendees and peer-team members. However, these successes are only slowly chipping away at decades of stigma surrounding law enforcement mental health outreach and the lack of attention to mental health training for both officers and dispatchers.
Law enforcement suicides nationally are consistently outpacing line of duty deaths year after year. According to Blue Help, a non-profit that monitors law enforcement suicides nationwide, 33 officers already have taken their lives this year, as of Feb. 19. Comparatively, 17 officers have been killed in the line of duty during the same period.
“Law enforcement, as a whole, has ignored this need with mental health, and we have basically thrown officers away at the end of a 20-year career,” McGuire said. “Statistics show that because of the amount of stress from what goes on during their careers, they don’t have lives as long as the rest of society. They have heart attacks and medical problems earlier in life than others.
“We have the ability here to change that – to put officers in a position that when they leave the career of law enforcement, they have a long, well-adjusted life ahead of them,” McGuire continued. “Why would we not take that opportunity?”
Developing the Opportunity
In its first year, KYPCIS served about 125 officers, dispatchers and their significant others. The core of the program – helping officers and dispatchers following a critical incident – is continuing to grow. The seminar currently is taught three times annually, and DOCJT is working to expand those offerings as needed.
However, this first year also led to the identification of expanded needs among Kentucky’s law enforcement and dispatch community. As a result, three new mental health initiatives are in development.
First, a military seminar is planned for those who experienced a critical incident during their military service that has lingered into their law enforcement or dispatch career.
“There are a significant number of officers who have military training and experience PTSD symptoms from incidents that occurred while being deployed outside the U.S., or during a training incident,” McGuire said. “Some officers have issues with not being deployed or issues from being sent across the country. Primarily what has been brought to our attention are the people who have experienced horrific events outside the U.S. during military deployment.”
Mental health care for military members has only recently received attention, McGuire said, creating an unmet need. Any former service member who has experienced post-traumatic stress (PTS) as a result of his or her military career is encouraged to sign up for the new military KYPCIS, which will first be offered Aug. 12-14.
“The idea of adding a military component to KYPCIS is to address that trauma for our officers,” McGuire said. “It not only makes them better officers, but it puts them in better condition to provide better service to our communities.”
Secondly, DOCJT is developing a KYPCIS component that addresses personal trauma. For example, experiencing a sudden traumatic loss (including the suicide or homicide of a loved one), a disaster or an acute medical event might cause job-affecting traumatic stress.
“We hear over and over again that officers don’t think they’re affected or think they have successfully internalized their trauma so that other people don’t see it,” McGuire said. “But we repeatedly hear from friends, spouses and significant others who attend KYPCIS with these officers that their post-traumatic stress has significantly affected their home lives and changed them as a person.
“We hear that it has significantly affected their effectiveness as a parent, spouse, brother or sister,” he continued. “Often the individual doesn’t notice it or thinks they’re doing a good job of hiding their stress, but they’re not.”
Just like the military component, these life stressors and their resulting PTS often spill over into work and compound with the stress of responding to other people’s traumas.
“As a society, we need to identify the importance of mental health and how improperly caring for your mental health affects your day-to-day activities, which includes your job as a law enforcement professional,” McGuire said.
The third component in development includes teaching officers and dispatchers earlier in their career what it means to care for their mental health properly. Resiliency training is being developed that will teach responders the signs and symptoms of PTS, healthy coping mechanisms and techniques to maintain a mentally-healthy life.
“We train police officers how to react to life and death situations, but we don’t teach them to manage the aftermath from a mental health perspective,” McGuire said. “Ultimately, we want to provide officers with the resources necessary to get care for themselves or to direct another officer toward help.”
All KYPCIS programs and components have been developed as part of tried and true, proven concepts to deal with mental health trauma for both law enforcement and military service. KYPCIS originated with the FBI, and South Carolina tailored it to meet the needs of its officers. DOCJT has benefited greatly from networking with others in these existing programs, and development of resiliency training will be no different.
“The military has developed a phenomenal resiliency model,” McGuire said.
In addition to learning and growing from other programs, KYPCIS and its components continue to grow through feedback of its participants.
“The largest change is amongst police officers themselves, the people on the street, detectives investigating cases and the people whose feet are on the ground doing the job,” McGuire said. “The conversations they are having has led to the improved success and increased enrollment of KYPCIS.
Because KYPCIS is a peer-driven program, it takes buy-in and participation from the officers and dispatchers involved. Each seminar, Kentucky’s peer group grows and new relationships are built that support participants for the rest of their careers. This is often demonstrated in comments from participants after completing the seminar.
“This class may very well have saved my career, marriage and family,” one participant wrote. “I may still be broken, but I feel that the pieces are all there and connected. For the first time, getting mental health assistance didn’t seem like a ‘bad thing.’ For the first time, getting help didn’t seem like it meant something was for the ‘crazies.’”
KYPCIS is a step toward connecting pieces for all Kentucky officers and dispatchers who are struggling. It is a step beyond responding with “fine” when someone asks how you’re handling life’s trauma and stressors.
“I think the majority of our officers are strong and will be ‘fine,’” McGuire said. “But things could always be better. KYPCIS is a step to hopefully make things better and gives us an opportunity to address future needs and concerns.”