Breaking the stigma around police mental health
(Originally published in The Press of Atlantic City on 5/2/2021)
Every day is a battle for Josh Vadell.
Still, the 33-year-old has come a long way from the thoughts of suicide that accompanied his early recovery.
“I’ve learned along the way, since everything happened, that it could always be worse,” the Egg Harbor Township resident said. “So I just remind myself of that every day. Every day, I struggle, but I always remind myself that somebody somewhere has it worse than I do, and it makes me more appreciative of life and what I have.”
Others aren’t as fortunate as Vadell, however.
Since at least 2018, more than 160 officers have taken their own lives each year in the United States, according to Blue H.E.L.P., an advocacy group for officer wellness. New Jersey reported 10 officer suicides in 2020. Among them was 29-year-old Richard Link, a member of the ACPD who was found dead in his car in August. The cause of death was determined to be suicide by gunshot wound.
Comparatively, National Law Enforcement Officer Memorial Fund reported 11 deaths from officers in the line of duty that same year. Across the nation, the number of suicides among members of law enforcement is roughly equal to or greater than the number of officers killed every year. In 2019, Blue H.E.L.P identified at least 238 suicides compared to 139 deaths in the line of duty as identified by the Memorial Fund.
Some, like New Jersey Association of Chiefs of Police Chief Psychologist Dr. Lewis Schlosser, believe the suicide figures are actually much higher. “The numbers we have are only those numbers that are reported,” Schlosser said, “which I would guess — and I can’t guarantee — that’s some under-reporting. There are situations where maybe a family feels shame or embarrassment or the family’s very private and they don’t want the death to be reported as such.”
For Vadell, the road back from despair was rocky.
After the shooting, he spent two months in a facility relearning basic motor functions. He also was diagnosed with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. It wasn’t until longtime friend Bill Mazur, a retired deputy chief of the Atlantic City Police Department, asked him about his mental health that he finally opened up. Mazur had always been interested in physical and mental wellness. He could tell something was off. “There are signs,” said Mazur, now a Public Safety Liaison for Acadia Healthcare. “There are things that you recognize, and I just saw the difference in his speech pattern. There was sort of an empty look in his eye, and I could tell it was symptomatic of depression.”
Shortly after, Vadell was checked into a live-in facility in Arizona for a month. He was originally reluctant to share his story there because he felt other patients there were dealing with so much more. But when he finally decided to speak up, the response gave him a new purpose in life.
“(The patients) felt motivated, and they would come up to me and say, ‘Hey, listening to you wants to make me work harder in my treatment, my recovery, everything,’” Vadell said. “That showed me that if I can help those people, that are worse off than me, through their trauma, I can help other people.” When he returned home, he told Mazur about this revelation and shortly after started speaking across the tri-state area. Another driving force in his recovery, Vadell said, was his family’s history of mental health issues. His brother, also an officer, died by suicide in 2007, and multiple relatives also have made attempts on their lives.
“That’s what kept me from taking the final step, remembering how I felt when he died,” Vadell said. “I thought about how my kids, my wife, my mom and my sister would feel if I had taken that final step. Then I thought, how can I help other people if I’m gone?” Atlantic County Sheriff Eric Scheffler called Vadell the “poster boy” for mental wellness and recovery within law enforcement. Scheffler’s office was one of the agencies involved in proposing the now-mandated resiliency program to the Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal, making the state first to require participation in a program of this kind. The sheriff and Mazur attended an FBI course on mental health, and it inspired both to bring resiliency to the state.
The resiliency program is designed to train officers to use positive coping skills when dealing with trauma on the job, from acknowledging that something is wrong to seeking help if needed. The first training session for Resiliency Program Officers (RPOs) was April 12 at the Atlantic City Convention Center, and more than 150 officers attended. Scheffler, who was an Atlantic City police officer for 22 years, said that acknowledgement is a major hurdle for officers. “One of the biggest issues with resilience is, honestly, the officers coming forward and saying, ‘Look, I have a problem,’” said Scheffler, adding that the ACPD dealt with 11 suicides while he was there. “That’s a really scary rabbit hole for a lot of officers, especially when it comes to mental health.
“If you can’t carry a gun, you can’t have a job,” he said.
Schlosser said officers seeking help is considered, ironically, “career suicide.”
During both the hiring and termination process, officers are given psychological evaluations. In addition to the resiliency program, Scheffler would like to see the evaluations become at least an annual thing. New York Psychologist Daniel Rudofossi estimated in his 2009 book “A Cop Doc’s Guide to Public Safety Complex Trauma Syndrome” that the average officer may experience at least 900 potentially traumatic events over the course of a 30- to 35-year career.
Schlosser, the chief psychologist for the N.J. Association of Chiefs of Police, said it’s the combination of traumatic events and the daily stress of the job that really starts to add up.
“A lot of people are always worrying about the ‘big bads,’ like an officer-involved shooting, which are very serious, of course,” he said, “But I’d say more frequently, it’s the kind of cumulative trauma of repeated exposure to stressful events with negative outcomes.” He added that 2020 was particularly tough for officers because of constant anxiety related to the COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide protests as a result of numerous high-profile deaths involving police.
“Putting on a blue uniform doesn’t make you Superman,” Schlosser said. “You’re still human underneath the blue uniform. You still have weaknesses and you have family that you care about and you have concerns. There’s almost just a layer of stress that everybody has, both citizens and law enforcement. And then you have the (Derek) Chauvin situation, the anti-police sentiment, the riots, the civil unrest and the incredible divide in our country.” Through resources such as the resiliency program, Schlosser says, improving the mental health in law enforcement may also improve community relations. “The whole idea is to have healthier officers,” he said, “and the goal is, if your officer is healthier, they’re going to be better on the job and better off the job. But, of course, if they’re healthier and they’re better on the job, I expect that we will see less use of force, fewer demeanor complaints, fewer abuses of sick time and better outcomes because the officers are going to be happier and healthier.
Officials believe things are improving. With New Jersey setting the standard for how seriously mental health should be taken, Mazur said, he has witnessed the gradual normalization to being open about these issues. When he joined the ACPD in 1995, he said, the “tough-guy” mentality would force officers to keep things to themselves, sometimes resorting to substance abuse as a means to alleviate the trauma. That culture, he thinks, may soon be in the past. “There’s a light being shined on it,” he said of the issue of mental health. “It’s come out of the shadows, and heroes like Josh (Vadell) and other people who have gone through stuff are speaking up.
“It’s starting to be accepted. It’s starting to become normalized. And when we can do that, that’s when we can have a true cultural shift.”