More resources available now for officers struggling with mental health issues
FARGO – Tony Krogh remembers the day he stopped for a pack of cigarettes on the way home from an armed standoff.
It had been a rough day for the SWAT team and Krogh, a corporal in the Cass County Sheriff’s Department.
A former Army infantryman sprayed a south Fargo neighborhood with a rain of bullets from his gun collection. Then, as officers tried to deliver a negotiating phone, the 26-year-old suspect looked out his door at them, went back inside his apartment and opened fire through the walls.
Two hours after getting off work, Krogh had smoked the entire pack – even though he’d given up cigarettes 17 years previously.
It was the first day he remembers noticing what he now believes, based on the advice of a veterans’ health counselor, were the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“When you see some of the garbage that law enforcement sees, how do you expect that not to affect them?” Krogh asked.
There are generally more resources available now than there once were for law enforcement officers struggling with mental health issues, including the sort of peer assistance crisis teams that Krogh helped to start in Cass County.
But when it comes to suicide, it’s not entirely clear how much greater the risk is for law enforcement officers – an issue that has taken on relevance in the region after two officers killed themselves in a little more than a year.
The most recent of the two area police suicides was Lt. Jeffrey Skuza, 47, a 23-year veteran of the Fargo Police Department who killed himself March 11.
Officer Chad Jutz of the Detroit Lakes Police Department killed himself at age 40 in May 2012 after 19 years with the department.
Some mental health advocates in the law enforcement community, such as the National Police Suicide Foundation, argue that upwards of 400 police officers kill themselves in the U.S. annually.
Daniel Clark, a psychologist for the Washington State Patrol and the author of a 2012 article on police suicides, said his study showed that law enforcement suicides are greater than in the general population, at about 18 officers per 100,000, compared to 12 per 100,000 for the general population.
Clark cautioned that measuring the risk of suicide for law enforcement against the general population may not be a fair comparison.
He said better comparisons are with members of the military, who are often exposed to similar stress while deployed, and with white males overall. Police suicide rates are lower than those for the military and white males.
But law enforcement officers skew younger, are subject to psychological screening, have access to better health care and are employed. That, the study suggested, should bring the suicide numbers down even lower for law enforcement.
Clark also said police officers often have difficulty admitting they themselves are struggling, and the study pointed out officers often become skilled at masking signs of distress – reducing the possibility that standard signs and symptoms will be noticed.
“As a culture, police officers are very good help givers,” he said. “They are very poor help seekers.”
Other studies make it equally difficult to draw conclusions about which professions are the highest-risk for suicide and other mental health issues.
A 2013 study of British occupations published in Psychological Medicine, a peer-reviewed journal, found that over the past 30 years, the highest suicide rates were found in jobs where people have easy access to suicide methods like drugs and guns. These jobs include police, veterinarians, pharmacists, dentists, doctors and farmers.
The study showed that by 2005, many of those professions fell off the high-risk list. Socioeconomic forces at play in the lives of the victims had become a stronger factor.
One number jumps out with clarity for Clark. He said 90 percent of all law enforcement suicides were completed with a firearm.
“We have ready access to lethal means,” he said.
Struggling to change
By the time Krogh knew he needed help, the symptoms were impossible to ignore. He was experiencing vivid mental images; not exactly flashbacks, but full-color moments from stressful cases that would come unbidden.
He’d often drive three blocks past work in the morning and not realize it.
And his second marriages ended in divorce, just as the first one had.
“One wife said, ‘You’re messed up. You need to go see somebody,’ ” he said.
The need to make help-seeking OK for his peers was what prompted Krogh to help establish the peer assistance crisis team in Cass County. Founded six years ago, the group also includes officers from Clay County, Minn., and West Fargo. The group, patterned after a similar organization that was already in place in the Fargo Police Department, gives officers a chance to talk to other law enforcement officials.
Sgt. Gail Wischmann, who works with Krogh on the crisis team, described him as “one of the best” when it comes to helping others – including her.
Things were much worse 20 years ago, she said. In those days, admitting you were struggling with grief or stress might make others on the force perceive you as weak, Wischmann said.
There was no real debriefing after a standoff, she said. There was no rehash of what had gone right or wrong, no explanation of the emotional and physical effects on officers of some 132 stress chemicals released in a crisis situation.
Law enforcement men and women were expected to have “broad shoulders,” Wischmann said.
She recalled the day in 1996 when a deputy with their department, Mike Kelly, shot his wife and then himself.
“They told us in a meeting, and that was it,” she said. “You dealt with it on your own, or with a buddy you might trust.”
These days, the peer assistance team will chase down its colleagues after a tough case to encourage them to talk about it.
Peers can give guidelines on healthy coping mechanisms like healthy eating and maintaining solid exercise habits, or talking to counselors with an employee assistance program.
“It’s always been part of my nature to reach out and make sure everyone is OK,” Krogh said. “Kind of a caretaker personality.”
Resources for police officers struggling with mental health issues have made major progress in the past 20 years, Clark agreed.
Clark said the best approach combines peer-based programs like the one Krogh established with top-down leadership in seeking mental health care.
That can prove more problematic. Senior officers are more likely to have an old-school attitude toward mental health, Clark said.
As the older, more resistant officers leave police work, the profession is starting to see help-seeking behavior as healthy, rather than as the sign of a problem, he said.
Officers have also been fearful that any help they seek from employee assistance programs will be used against them by superiors, he said.
There is also often a lack of familiarity with law enforcement culture among counselors in employee assistance programs, he said.
“I think it sometimes takes a catastrophic event for things to start happening,” he said.
Skuza, a 47-year-old lieutenant, was on the border between senior leadership and the new generation, but his attitude toward mental health was part of the modern vanguard. Like Krogh, Skuza was considered a key leader in establishing a safe place for fellow officers to seek mental health care.
The Fargo Police Department began its peer assistance crisis team a year before Cass County did, thanks in large part to Skuza’s vision, Krogh said.
In the wake of his death, Krogh has had a lot of meetings with Cass County deputies who are seeking answers to what happened.
Some of them didn’t even know Skuza, he said.
“Jeff was someone who got it as far as the mental health side. Not just in law enforcement, but with the community,” Krogh said. “It’s frustrating.”