Havre de Grace, Md. — Ken Baer can’t think of a day in the past few months when his phone hasn’t received calls, text messages and emails from the police department, sheriff’s office or fire station asking for help for an employee. A patrol officer makes a suicide threat with his service weapon before roll call. A veteran firefighter broke down until he drowned in vodka. A deputy overdoses on fentanyl in his squad car.
“It’s the worst I’ve seen in my career,” said Baer, co-founder and CEO of Harbor of Grace Enhanced Recovery Center, a private mental health and substance use recovery and treatment center for first responders in the waterfront Maryland town. Havre de Grace. Founded in 2015, Harbor of Grace is one of only six treatment centers in the United States accredited by the Fraternal Order of Police, the world’s largest organization of law enforcement officers.
Public safety is a profession plagued by high rates of mental health and addiction issues. Given the relentless pressure on first responders, Beyer said, treatment centers can’t keep up with demand.
Specialty recovery facilities like Harbor of Grace focus on treating law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and dispatchers — who regularly face workplace violence and death. In the past two years, Baer said, the number of police officers admitted for treatment at his facility alone has more than tripled. “And we always have 20 cops lined up,” he said. Other treatment centers for first responders have reported similar spikes in patients.
Anger over police and policing practices grew after the 2020 killing of a Minneapolis officer, George Floyd, and put additional strain on officers’ mental health, said Dr. Brian Lerner, a psychiatrist and medical director of Harbor of Grace. “Employees feel humiliated by the public and often, they feel unsupported by their organizations,” he said.
That’s part of the reason “we’re seeing significant rates of burnout among police officers,” says Jennifer Prohaska, a clinical psychologist in Kansas City, Kansas, who focuses on helping law enforcement personnel.
The poor mental health of many officers, combined with low morale, has contributed to police layoffs across the country that have left departments understaffed and remaining officers overworked and exhausted. Atlanta, Seattle, Phoenix and Dallas have been particularly hard hit by officer shortages. “It’s putting a lot of pressure on the system,” Prahaska said. “It’s a perfect storm.”
Even before the most recent stress, burnout and depression rates among first responders were high. The rate of post-traumatic stress disorder is five times higher among police officers than in the civilian population. Some studies estimate that 30% of police officers have a substance use problem. Alcohol dependence tops the list.
Last year alone, 138 law enforcement officers died by suicide – more than the number killed in the line of duty – 129 – according to the FBI. A recent report by the Ruderman Family Foundation suggests that police suicides are often downplayed by stigma.
Harbor of Grace has a small campus of eight one-story brick buildings with light blue and yellow accents and looks more like a seaside inn than a clinical setting. The center can treat 47 patients at a time. It has seven acute care beds, mostly for detox.
It provides support for a wide range of mental health conditions, including addiction, sleep disorders, anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and PTSD.
To date, more than 500 law enforcement agencies — federal, state and local — have dispatched personnel to Harbor of Grace. The center has 45 full-time clinical staff, including an emergency physician and several psychiatrists, nurses and counselors. Many have served as first responders before — from Army medics and firefighters to police officers.
On a recent morning in Grace Harbor, the sun warmed over the Chesapeake Bay. A group of patients, mostly men and a few women in their 30s, gathered on the small patio. Some are sitting alone, while others are standing in small groups chatting.
“We get all kinds, from all kinds of backgrounds, and all stages of brokenness,” said Baer, 66, a former firefighter and EMT who overcame an alcohol problem decades ago. “All of our patients and most of our staff know what it’s like to hold a dead or dying baby,” she said.
Sergeant Ryan Close holds several dead children. The 37-year-old police officer works as a patrol supervisor for a small law enforcement agency in New England that he did not want to identify to protect the identity of his colleagues. He has been a police officer for 15 years and has worked in various departments. When he started, he said, officers did not receive psychological training or access to designated peer support programs.
He said that almost every time he was involved in a critical incident — such as a shooting or an accident with burned and mutilated bodies — “my supervisor later ordered me to the bar.” One incident in particular sticks in his memory – when a little boy shot himself in the head with a rifle. Washing down the scares with alcohol “was the culture of the day,” he said.
But Close didn’t drink much at the time and was ridiculed by his peers for ordering only small beers. It wasn’t until years later, when memories of his experiences at work resurfaced and he had trouble sleeping, that he began self-medicating with alcohol. He developed social anxiety and his marriage suffered.
His department pushed him to get help and he entered Harbor of Grace in April 2021 for a 28-day treatment cycle. There, he learned to let go of his tough veneer and his passion for always being in control. After he arrived at the center he saw many other policemen struggling with it. “I’ve witnessed grown men have fits like a 6-year-old because a staff member wouldn’t let them use a cellphone.”
Many first responders develop heavy defense mechanisms and are “insecure, non-trusting, controlling,” Baer said. They often wait too long before seeking help, he added.
Police officers “don’t want to be too closed off, too vulnerable,” Lerner said. But he finds that most first responders develop model patients after taking the first step. “At that point, they’re all there,” he said. “They don’t do anything by halves.”
At Harbor of Grace, the communication style mirrors the tone at a police station or firehouse, Baer said. “We don’t waste time on good things,” he said. “We are blunt. We call people when needed.”
Psychologist Prahaska said it’s important that specialized behavioral treatment centers exist for first responders. But, he said, there must be better investments going forward — for hands-on initiatives that teach public safety workers resilience, like the one he created for the Kansas City Police Department.
He said robust mental health training must be part of the academy’s curriculum and embedded in police culture. “As we teach officers safety, we need to teach them resilience,” he added. “A two-hour PowerPoint course won’t do it.”
Baer expects the situation to get worse before it gets better. In the past two years, he has seen more police officers resign while undergoing treatment. Earlier, most went back to work. “Now, once they get clarity, a lot of people say, ‘I want to be healthy, and the way to be healthy is to get out of police work,'” he said.
Ryan Close has decided to return to law enforcement. She has become an advocate for peer-to-peer support within her agency and beyond. He said his own mental health journey has made him a better police officer with more empathy and improved communication skills.
His advice to fellow officers is to learn about the potential effects of trauma before they develop into a serious problem. Also, he said, “Establish a good dialogue with your family, your supervisors, your colleagues. Know what your limitations are. and learn healthy coping skills. Alcohol is not the same.”
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