MENTAL HEALTH

Police officers and firefighters deal with added stress during pandemic

A sidewalk chalk message thanks the essential workers - which include local police and fire departments - who can't work
A sidewalk chalk message thanks the essential workers — which include local police and fire departments — who can’t work from home but must continue to work with the public throughout the year. (Adobe Stock)

Police officers and firefighters are no strangers to dealing with high-stress situations on the job, but the pandemic has added a new level of complexity with social distancing and extra protective gear.

Several Eastern Iowa departments have instituted programs in recent years to ensure that public safety officers can process what they experience on the job and talk about mental health issues on a regular basis.

“For the fire department, and I know for the CRPD as well, there’s a significant cultural change happening,” said Marcus Morin, a Cedar Rapids firefighter and Peer Support Team leader. “That culture used to be, we didn’t talk about it. It was just part of the job. You dealt with it however or whatever means felt right to you.

“In the past five or six years, we’ve really started to turn the corner where, it’s OK to have stress, to have feelings, and to be able to have an avenue to communicate those.”

The Cedar Rapids Fire Department’s Peer Support Team is made up of professionally trained staff and clinicians who will visit a fire station after a particularly traumatic call. They encourage the firefighters to talk and express their feelings, letting them know what to expect as far as possible stress reactions and how to mitigate those reactions. If more than peer interaction is needed, firefighters are referred to the clinicians for private counseling.

Morin said the fire department staff is doing the best it can to adjust to the extra pandemic precautions.

“Yes, it’s a little inconvenient. Yes, there’s a little added equipment. There’s a little added stress,” he said. “But this, too, will pass, and it’s just the mode we’re in right now.”

The Cedar Rapids Police Department also has had to change its protocol in response to COVID-19, with officers not being as hands-on when it comes to medical calls when firefighters and paramedics are present.

When local businesses started requiring masks, officers conducted extra patrols to ensure peaceful re-openings.

“The stance we wanted to take here at the department was not so much a citation and enforcement stance but more of an education stance,” Sgt. Ben Wery said.

Police often handle mental health calls, which have increased since the pandemic began, with 215 calls between April and June alone. The department now has three mental health liaisons available to help with those calls, freeing patrol officers to focus on criminal activity.

The department also has prioritized officers’ mental health in the face of additional stressors, including social unrest and the derecho.

After the August derecho, officers worked six-day weeks, 10- to 12-hour shifts, for about two weeks.

Wery is a member of the department’s peer-to-peer support team that has been in place the past two years. Team members review call logs each day and identify service calls that might need to be addressed, contacting the involved officer to talk through the incident and look for indicators of stress, anxiety and depression.

Both the police and fire departments offer free counseling through peer groups and with staff counselors and professionals outside of the departments, if necessary.

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“I think one of the things that saves firefighters and keeps our sanity is we get to come to a place with like-minded folks and work together, vent together, discuss things together,” Morin said. “That’s a huge mental health boost outside of peer support, just interaction with your peers.”

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