Chicago

First responders call on legislators for more mental health resources

State legislators on Wednesday heard hours of testimony from first responders about the need for greater mental health services for police and firefighters in Illinois.

The hearing of the Police & First Responders Committee came weeks after a third Chicago police officer took their own life in a span of two months. At least one Chicago firefighter has committed suicide this year, as well.

Speaker after speaker noted the repeated trauma witnessed by first responders on a near-daily basis.

“It is easy in this line of work, of course, to become jaded and callous and bitter over the years as these incidents pile up,” said Father Dan Brandt, a CPD chaplain. “Police officers see more in one eight- or 10-hour tour than most people see in a lifetime.”

“It certainly adds up,” he said.

The hearing — which several attendees said was a positive “first step” — was led by Rep. Frances Hurley (D-Chicago). Hurley’s 35th District covers the Beverly and Mount Greenwood neighborhoods, which are home to scores of Chicago police and firefighters.

Kevin Graham, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, which represents the CPD’s rank-and-file officers, said that legislation requiring confidentiality within police peer support programs would do a lot to lessen the stigma surrounding mental health in law enforcement.

Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 President Kevin Graham speaks at an Illinois General Assembly Police & First Responders Committee joint hearing at the Bilandic Building, Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 President Kevin Graham speaks at an Illinois General Assembly Police & First Responders Committee joint hearing at the Bilandic Building, Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Additionally, Graham suggested legislation that would require police departments and municipalities to pay for first responders’ mental health treatment — even after retirement.

“These officers and firefighters were of sound mental health when they came on and it’s the things that they have seen and done over the years that has really caused their breakdown in mental health for some of these [first responders,]” Graham said.

As part of the proposed consent decree to oversee reforms within the CPD, the city and police department agreed to improve efforts to de-stigmatize officer wellness programs and address the department’s high rate of suicide among officers.

Matt Olson, co-founder and executive director of the Illinois Firefighter Peer Support program, spoke at length about his battles with depression and anxiety during his more than 20 years working as a firefighter. He spoke glowingly of a counselor who offered him “a little bit of hope.”

“It’s not easy to climb out of there, but it’s not impossible,” Olson said. “A sliver of hope is more powerful than a head full of fear, depression and anxiety.”