A measure of strength: Officer mental health remains a top priority for local law enforcement agencies | VailDaily.com

A measure of strength: Officer mental health remains a top priority for local law enforcement agencies

Avon Police Chief Greg Daly represents local law enforcement on the Eagle County Mental Health Advisory Board and works to ensure Avon Police officers have adequate mental healthcare. Daly is also the board president of SpeakUp ReachOut, the suicide prevention coalition of Eagle County.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily archive

Mental health is important for anyone, but local law enforcement agencies are recognizing that mental well-being for officers who deal with trauma daily on the job is a top priority.

Greg Daly is the Avon chief of police and the board president of SpeakUp ReachOut, the suicide prevention coalition of Eagle County.

When a job exposes one to traumatic situations, Daly said it is vitally important for the necessary support to be available. 

“We consider mental health to be a very, very important aspect of our jobs,” Daly said. 

Without proper trauma-coping tools and mental health support, Daly explained that officers face an uphill battle.

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Ruderman Family Foundation white paper released in 2018 and updated in 2022 shows, through data, that first responders are more likely to die of suicide than in the line of duty. Eagle County Sheriff’s Office deputy Tayler Esslinger lost that uphill battle in 2019 when he took his own life. Esslinger, who was also a longtime Gypsum Fire Protection District volunteer firefighter was passionate about helping others and serving the community, according to the friends, family and colleagues he left behind.

Tayler Esslinger

Since the 26-year-old first responder’s death, local law enforcement agencies have been placing an even stronger emphasis on the upkeep of officers’ mental well-being in an effort to prevent further loss of the community’s valued public servants.

Daly said there are several resources available through local law enforcement agencies that can provide the help officers need. Among these resources is funding for regular, mandated officer mental health check-ins. Officers are able to go see licensed mental health professionals in order to talk through anything that they may be struggling with. 

“The purpose of that is if they have any personal or work-related issues that they’d like to discuss, that’s, you know, a safe opportunity for them to do that,” Daly said.

After their mandated session, if an officer needs further assistance, Daly said they can schedule appointments with the mental health provider privately. He said officers are able to keep their mental health support sessions confidential while still ensuring that officers are not paying out-of-pocket thanks to the Employee Assistance Program.

Eagle County Sheriff’s Office undersheriff Dan Loya said county-wide, a peer support program provides help to any officer at any given time.

“Traumatic events are year-round,” Loya said. “We encourage the more the better.”

Daly said Eagle County law enforcement agencies and fire services each have a team of trained peer support counselors. After undergoing a 40-hour training, first responder peer support counselors are there to promote the mental well-being of others within their agency and throughout the county.

“The whole idea is that if somebody wants to reach out to a peer counselor in a different agency, maybe they want to keep a certain level of confidentiality, they are strongly encouraged to do that,” Daly said. 

Despite the training they undergo, first responder peer counselors are also trained to coordinate higher levels of care, when necessary, if an officer is perhaps experiencing a mental health crisis.

Loya mentioned that time off for mental health recuperation is also available to officers in need of it. 

With systems like mandated mental health check-ins and accessibility to peer counselors, local law enforcement agencies are not only doing what they can to support the mental well-being of their officers, but they are also conducting a much-needed conversation about mental health. Daly said seeking mental health help is nothing to be embarrassed about.

“We have an internal mantra at our agency and that is something that I’ve used for many years,” Daly said. “Strong body, strong mind. That basically is just a message to say that, yeah, our expectation is we need to keep ourselves fit and strong for the job we do, but we also need to keep ourselves mentally strong.”

Daly said he encourages anyone to seek help. While in the past, seeking help may have been considered a weakness, he explained that in actuality, seeking help is a major strength. 

“There is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking help,” Daly said. “We all need it at some stage in our careers, given the job we do.”

Eagle police officer Eric Bonta said that finding mental health care has been an important part of maintaining his well-being throughout his career. Similar to going to a doctor to maintain physical health, Bonta said it is important for people, especially officers, to see mental health care providers to maintain one’s mental health.

Bonta also said that normalizing seeking mental health support is important. While law enforcement officials struggle with mental health issues and addiction at a higher rate than the rest of the population, he explained that officers are also there to set a good example. Doing what they can to mitigate mental health issues, establish support for themselves and destigmatize mental health care can have a lasting effect on surrounding communities.

“I would say that at least half, if not most people have or are suffering from some kind of mental health issue,” Bonta said. “I think it’s far more relevant than anyone really realizes or wants to believe in. It’s, you know, it’s something that really needs to be normalized.”

Residents can seek mental health support through Eagle Valley Behavioral Health, Your Hope Center, SpeakUp ReachOut, and other community resources. 

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