Mental health services can benefit police officers

Jul 11, 2012

By Rena Malai, News Staff

Former police officer Sonny Provetto clearly remembers being called to a 13-car pileup in his previous role with the police department in Burlington, Vt.

And when he drives along the same highway today, he said it still affects him.

“The operator was decapitated,” Provetto recalled of one of the drivers. “In the normal realm of human experience, you usually don’t see these things. But as a police officer you see them, day in and day out.”

According to police Sgt. Stephanie Neuman, police officers don’t start in their line of work thinking nothing will ever happen that affects them. However, it’s impossible to prepare for the reality of seeing traumatic incidents.

“It’s not normal to see brain matter spattered on the wall when you get called to a murder scene,” she said. “It’s not normal to see a baby die. Days and events precipitate things out of your control.”

After witnessing a shooting six years ago as a rookie officer in Cheyenne, Wyo., Neuman knew she needed help to cope.

“I was involved in an officer shooting eight weeks on the job,” she said. “The chief at the time wanted me to go back to work immediately. I was devastated. Luckily, a lieutenant stepped in and advised the chief that I would go on administrative leave and I would be given mental health services.”

Sonny Provetto

Going through traumatic experiences as police officers prompted Neuman and Provetto — both NASW members with MSWs — to seek treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, and to pursue social work in order to help fellow law enforcement officers in similar mental health predicaments. Provetto is now an LCSW in private practice.

Police officers constantly make split-second decisions, which may be questioned later by their superiors and community, said George Patterson, LCSW.

From his experience as a counseling specialist with the police department in Rochester, N.Y.; a visiting professor, curriculum adviser and consultant to the New York City Police Department; and visiting professor to the police department in Westchester County, N.Y., Patterson got to know everything a police officer comes into contact with every day. They’re dealing with homicide, he said, child abuse, domestic violence, and pain and suffering right at the scenes.

“Dealing with bloody, violent experiences and suffering takes a toll emotionally,” said Patterson, an NASW member and associate social work professor at Hunter College in New York. “There is also life stress not related to work, such as going through a divorce, financial problems, buying a home. And this is all in addition to adjusting to a job. They need some way to cope.”

From the July 2012 NASW News. NASW members click here for the full story.

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