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Philly cops are used to tragedy. But 6 kids shot in a month can crack their 'emotional shell'

Oona Goodin-Smith and Anna Orso, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

The number of Philadelphia children caught in the crosshairs of gun violence has spiked in the last two or three years, Walker said, as a new generation of young men in the drug game disregard what was long a given: You don't shoot when kids are around.

"It seems recently that scenes are getting worse, that things have gotten more and more horrific, especially when kids are involved," said Tracy Brooks, the lead counselor of the EAP. Since 2015, 28 children age 10 and under have been shot in Philadelphia, according to police data.

Brooks, who has been at the EAP for 15 years, said that while the unit's cases used to center around stressors in officers' lives outside the uniform, over the last couple of years, cops have reached out more about trauma on the job. This is a good thing, Walker said.

"In my day, you were seen as weak if you showed emotion," the captain said, crediting acting Police Commissioner Christine M. Coulter for championing mental-health resources since she was deputy commissioner.

When it comes to talking to a counselor at the EAP, there can be an inherent trust issue because it's run by the department and there's a fear that word would get around that someone asked for help, said Andy Callaghan, a 30-year police veteran and a sergeant in the narcotics division.

That's why the program's internal counselors have a strict confidentiality policy. The unit also partners with Penn Behavioral Health to offer external counseling options away from the Police Department to cops and their families. There are also programs through the department and the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5 for police suicide prevention, critical incident stress management, and "mental health first aid." The idea, Callaghan said, is to provide officers a variety of options to normalize the need for help.

 

Mental wellness is also a priority at the Fire Department, which is piloting a program that provides employees mental-health help via NeuroFlow, said Crystal Yates, the Philadelphia Fire Department's assistant deputy commissioner for EMS. The app aims to improve mental wellness for first responders through breathing exercises, stress relief interactives, and a crisis button.

This type of wellness programming is not theoretical, Callaghan said. It can be life-or-death.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is more likely to occur in first responders who don't have an outlet or someone to talk to, said Govan Martin, a former Pennsylvania state trooper and current chair of the board of directors for Prevent Suicide PA. And people with a diagnosis of PTSD are at a greater risk to attempt suicide, research shows.

Over the last four years, the number of police officer suicides has steadily increased nationally. In 2019 alone, 195 officers have died by suicide, according to Blue H.E.L.P., an organization that aims to reduce mental-health stigma in law enforcement.

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