‘A huge impact’: SLCPD Peer Support Group helps break down mental health stigma

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salt lake city police department

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – On August 9, 2020, a vehicle went off the road and entered the Jordan River. Two juveniles died in the crash after becoming trapped inside the flipped car.

Darren Nichols, a Salt Lake City Police Officer, was the first to arrive at the scene.

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“I ended up dropping all my gear and jumping in the water in an attempt to save the kids’ lives. The two-year-old was still trapped in the vehicle at that time and the mom was out of the vehicle, and it was a really, really difficult incident,” Nichols tells ABC4. “There were lives lost that night, and it really had a huge impact on me that it kind of put me in a bit of a dark place.”

Nichols says he blamed himself for a lot of different things that happened that night, but it also marked a turning point for him. He was introduced to the department’s Peer Support Group.

Derrick Pyles, Coordinator for the Peer Support Group, showed up on the banks of the river to offer support.

“He was there for me,” Nichols says.

As he was driving home that night, Nichols says he got a call from another peer support officer. The next morning, another officer from the peer support group showed up at his door to check on him.

“Just having those coworkers show up for me made such a huge impact on me and my healing process after the traumatic incident, and so I decided that I wanted to be there…,” he says. “I decided that I wanted to be there for my brothers and sisters in blue because I know the impact that it had on my life for them showing up for me. I was able to go through a proper healing process, get the resources I needed, and get my life back on track because it was a hard thing to cope with.”

What is SLCPD’s Peer Support Group?

Salt Lake City Police Department officially began their Peer Support Program in 2003, but it really began to take off after the department suffered two officer deaths by suicide in 2012, Pyles says.

The group’s purpose is for its members is to provide support and move their peers who need it toward resources.

Pyles was hand-selected to run the program as a support group for the COVID-19 safety team. He credits Lieutenant Mark Buhman and Assistant Chief Tim Doubt as overseeing the initiative and being big supporters of keeping it going.

“Our mission is to provide a confidential resource in a safe, judgment-free environment, accessible to all employees, retirees, and eligible family members,” Pyles says, reading off the group’s mission statement. “The program’s focus is to serve those who serve and facilitate healing for the future through guidance and minimizing the harmful effects that come with the stressors of the workplace as well as critical incidents encountered on a professional and or personal level.”

The Peer Support Group consists of 32 members and just increased, with 11 new members and one support canine named Rita. Members are made up of officers and civilian employees, he explains.

Members of the group receive training about mental health issues, such as “how to identify what trauma is, what it does to the body, some signs and symptoms, what stress is… It helps us to understand how to deal and cope with stress,” Pyles states.

“Stress is by far one of our highest areas right now in our department,” he says.

The training members receive helps them to be able to identify these things and have conversations with their peers so they can provide moral support in times of need, Pyles explains.

“We’re not therapists, we’re not counselors. We’re just peers trying to help each other out.”

And having peers be the ones to offer advice helps break down stigmas surrounding law enforcement and mental health.

“… because now we have peers like myself who have experienced mental health crises and I’m like, look, I’ve had these issues too and I did these things and they seemed to help me,” Pyles says. “It kind of melts away that barrier and allows people to really focus and take that leap and they realize it’s great.”

The program is open to all Salt Lake City Police Department employees, retirees, and any of their family members. But the program has also traveled to other departments to offer support when needed. Team members are available to their peers 24/7. Pyles says sometimes he will get a call at 3 a.m. from peers who need his help.

“I’ll listen and we’ll kind of evaluate what’s going on and if they just want to talk, I’ll just let them talk. And sometimes that makes them feel better,” he says. “Sometimes they’ll say, I don’t know what to do, I need your help, and that will consist of us understanding what resources our department has specifically and we push them toward those.”

Pyles says group members provide resources, listening, and helping hands when a peer needs them. They also provide education about the effects of trauma and stress, which can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Group members will also make themselves available following critical incidents that occur. For example, a few days following the Jordan River incident, the group assisted with a critical incident stress management debriefing in an attempt to provide some closure for all involved, Pyles says.

According to Pyles, this involved bringing all first responders involved in the incident into a room to talk about it and help fill in the blanks.

“Dispatchers don’t always get closure on all the calls they take, so they get the initial and then the phone just cuts off. They don’t know what happens, so we want to be able to provide them with that closure instead of their brain making up a story,” he explains.

First responders, such as police officers, need time to decompress so they can continue to serve the community, Pyles states.

“They put the uniform on and they go out there and see these horrific things and they need a place to go where they can decompress and get the assistance they so they can be better than they were before.”

How can the community help officers? Send a comment to the department’s secretary, head of police, or even the mayor’s office, Pyles says.

“They mean a lot. I’ve kept them all – it’s a fantastic way to look back and see you affected positive change.”

How does the Peer Support Program help?

Miles Knapp is another officer who has benefitted from the Peer Support Program.

Having recently come from a significantly smaller agency to the Salt Lake City Police Department, Knapp says the stress of work began compacting with the stresses in his personal life and eventually reached a boiling point.

As a newer officer, Knapp says he didn’t want people to see him as “broken,” but he knew he needed help.

“We just had one little baby, and my wife and I were both individually noticing significant issues arising in our marriage and in the way that I act at home… I just said, I need help,” Knapp states.

Knapp says he was familiar with the Peer Support Group and knew to reach out to them for help. He shares the moment he calls his “all-time low.”

“I was sitting there in my car thinking, I don’t want to do this anymore. Everything was crumbling around me and I just can’t do this. If I want to save my marriage and my relationship with my family I can’t do this job anymore, and call it divine intervention or what you will, but he [peer support member] just happened to be pulling into the precinct right as that thought went through my mind and I just said, ‘hey, I need to talk to you.”

The peer support member Knapp reached out to went out to the parking lot with him and the two talked for over an hour. He sat with Knapp while he called a number to begin meeting with a therapist, who Knapp was able to begin seeing within a week.

“It basically saved my relationship with not just my wife but all my relationships with people. I just become such a different person and somebody I didn’t like to be that I realized I needed to change something, so peer support was instrumental in doing that,” Knapp explains.

He says there is a stigma around mental health and law enforcement that can make reaching out for help difficult.

“There’s a stigma that has existed in law enforcement for decades and decades – the stigma that if you’re a cop and you have a problem, you just bury it and move on. You’re a big, tough cop and you need to put on a tough face for everybody and so if you have a problem, just don’t show it and don’t tell anybody and keep on living your life,’ he explains.

“That’s why law enforcement has the highest divorce rates of any profession and suicide rates among the highest,” he adds.

Through this experience, Knapp decided to become a member of the Peer Support Team. He is able to help peers struggling with similar mental health problems that he experienced.

“… if somebody’s having a problem, there’s certain things that I’ve experienced myself that allows me to relate to them and not just say I can’t imagine how hard this is for you, but I know how hard this is for you. Because I’ve been through it and it’s changed my relationships with my wife, my daughter, my co-workers, and the people I interact with out in the public…”

He says being in a positive mental state of mind is essential to the job and protecting the public.

“… when there’s something in the back of your mind that’s distracting you, in our job, that can get you killed,” he explains.

Knapp says many first responders probably think they’d never consider suicide.

“… but I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of first responders who have done that have thought the same thing, and so its vital to get the help you need because you never know when you’re going to be staring down the barrel of your own gun…” he adds.

Nichols, the officer referenced at the beginning of this story, also went on to become a Peer Support Group member due to his own positive experience with the group. He started therapy to begin his healing process, he tells ABC4.

“There were times when I became overwhelmed with certain processes and hoops that I had to jump through, things like trying to figure out insurance stuff for taking some leave, getting set up with finding a therapist… so when I got overwhelmed, they took the wheel and they took the burdens off my shoulders,” Nichols says.

According to Nichols, the reason he believes so much in peer support is because it can be difficult for cops to talk to people outside of law enforcement about traumatic incidents they experience on duty.

“I think peer support really allows that level of relatability as well as confidentiality,” he states.

According to Nichols, police are problem solvers for people in the community, and that can lead to the stigma that they don’t need help.

“That is what we do every day is go and solve other people’s problems, and the thought process for so many officers is that well, we can solve problems just fine. We don’t need anybody else’s help because we’re professionals at it, so we should be able to solve all our own problems. And that’s just not the case,” he says.

Reaching out for help will not jeopardize an officer’s job, he says.

“We’re trying to break that stigma, especially within peer support, we’re trying to break these ideas. It’s okay to ask for help. It’s okay to talk about your mental health issues because we all have them and it won’t jeopardize your career in any way, shape, or form.

And he has already had opportunities to be there for his “brothers and sisters in blue” through the peer support group.

“People need somebody to talk to … there are resources to get back on track. My therapist helped me focus back in on the things I love doing and I was able to get myself back into the gym that I had been away from for over a year and get more healthy, which has been huge for me,” Nichols states.

“So that’s what we want to do is get more information out there so that people can be safe and come talk to us when they’re dealing with things rather than go a different route and end up hurting themselves.”

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