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OFFICERS WITH PTSD STRUGGLE TO GET HELP

Record - 5/14/2017

Even as police departments have been taking steps to make it easier to come forward with stress disorders, officers often continue to suffer quietly, only to find roadblocks when they finally do seek help, according to mental health experts who specialize in law enforcement.

Sgt. Bryan Doel, 47, of the Old Bridge police, said that in 2013, after he was involved in a fatal shooting, he was directed by a workers compensation administrator to a therapist who told him she had never counseled an officer who went through a traumatic incident. She specialized in people who suffered from schizophrenia, Doel said, like the man he had shot.

"She was a very nice woman," Doel said. "But wouldn't it be better to talk to someone who knows where you're coming from?"

Three mental health experts who work with police said that such scenarios are common -- and that some workers compensation providers appear to rush officers back to work to please insurance administrators who funnel patients to them. The workers compensation insurers are on the hook for a portion of the patients' salaries while they're out of work, the experts said, leading to a system with built-in conflicts of interest.

"They send you to people with a vested interest in getting you back to work quickly," Stephanie Samuels, a Freehold therapist who specializes in treating law enforcement officers, said. "It's Band-Aid on a hemorrhaging wound."

Doel said he met with Samuels based on a recommendation, and she showed him techniques to slow his breathing and heart rate, explaining that he had been waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat because he was having nightmares he did not remember.

He said his request to have Samuels as his therapist initially was denied by the administrator of his workers compensation insurance, Qual-Lynx, who told him she was not on the company's list of authorized clinicians. He was able to make the switch, he said, only after he got a lawyer involved and his agency wrote a letter asking that Samuels be allowed to provide the treatment.

Qual-Lynx CEO Ann Noble said in a statement that she could not discuss a specific case but that employers may determine healthcare providers for an employee's work-related condition.

"Many employers choose to exercise this right," she said. "While injured workers often prefer to get care from their own providers, that isn't always possible."

Scott Tashjy, a Manasquan attorney, said insurers don't always honor employers' requests. In such cases, he said, workers may file a petition with the state Division of Workers' Compensation - a process that could take up to six months to complete.

Doel, who suffered shoulder and jaw injuries when he was struck by a wrench as the man tried to grab his gun, was cleared in the shooting by a state grand jury. He did not discuss the incident, citing a pending lawsuit brought by the family of the man who was killed.

Samuels, he said, told him he had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and helped him to get it under control, allowing him to return to work in about eight months.

Experts said that it is not easy getting some police officers to counselling in the first place. A Badge of Life survey found that in 85 percent of police suicides "no one saw it coming, and you're working in a profession where officers are trained to observe," said Ron Clark, the organization's chairman.

Samuels said she had to convince some clients that therapy is not "hocus-pocus," adding that police officers are "amazing at wearing masks."

Many of her police officer clients come to her for counselling about relationship issues, she said, adding that some of those problems may be related to PTSD.

State guidelines require officers involved in domestic violence incidents to undergo a psychological evaluation and a fitness for duty exam.

Seven of the 150 police suicides recorded by the state Department of Health over a 12-year period, through 2014, had been reported as directly following homicides, although there was no information about the circumstances surrounding them and no way to know whether they were determined to be domestic violence incidents.

The state Attorney General's Office said in a statement that it is "in the process of preparing a new Early Warning System protocol" that local departments may use as a model to recognize when officers are having problems, including depression, a sudden decrease in work productivity, aggressiveness and domestic violence incidents. According to the statement, prosecutors in 11 counties, including Bergen, have put such policies in place for county law enforcement officers. Passaic County was not among them.

Bergen County Prosecutor Gurbir S. Grewal said that he plans to integrate local police early warning systems with the one run by his office to improve oversight. Passaic County Prosecutor Camelia Valdes did not respond to a request for information about her office's plans.

William Parenti, president of the New Jersey Association of Chiefs of Police, said law enforcement officials have become more aware of the problem of PTSD over the years and that supervisors in his department in North Plainfield are trained to look for signs of the condition. He said that they also make sure that officers are aware of peer counselling offered by Cop2Cop, which was created by the state legislature in 1999 and is housed at Rutgers University.

Cop2Cop staff members declined to be interviewed for this story but recently said that they were responsible for averting more than 200 police suicides since they began operating. There have been about the same number of completed police suicides in the state over that period - at least 190 since 2003, based on a compilation of information from the state Department of Health and the state PBA.

 
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