Chicago police officers are seeking more help from department therapists than ever before, according to city data obtained by WBEZ. The increase in mental health contacts came as the department grappled with a rash of officer suicides.
Department records show that in 2018, there were nearly 25,000 “contacts” between department clinicians and department members and their families. That level of engagement with police counselors dwarfs numbers from any prior year this decade, and it is more than double the number of contacts in 2016. WBEZ obtained clinician contact numbers from each year going back to 2010, with the exception of 2011, for which the department had no data.
“Every year, more and more officers and their families seek CPD’s clinical drug and alcohol and peer support services,” Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said at the start of an officer wellness summit on Wednesday. “I firmly believe that the communities we serve have perhaps the most to benefit from officers taking advantage of CPD’s counseling services.”
This month, the department added six additional clinicians, more than doubling the number of department therapists, according to police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi.
“This diverse workforce now includes twelve clinical therapists, with most specializing in the fields of trauma and critical incidents,” Johnson said. “I hope that these additions are sufficient, but we’ll evaluate the number as we move forward.”
Former officers and experts said adding therapists is only part of the battle; the bigger tasks are reducing the stigma around seeking help and supporting officers when they do reach out.
To that end, Johnson shared his own story on Wednesday of seeking help from department counselors. He described his mind feeling “clouded” while he was driving, so Johnson said he pulled over, called the Employee Assistance Program and spoke with a clinician for about two hours.
“I felt like an anchor had been taken off my shoulders. I just needed to unpack what I was feeling,” Johnson said. “I’ve chosen to personally combat the stigma by speaking openly about my own struggles and the positive impact that CPD’s mental health services had for me.”
Johnson said the increase in contacts between the counseling division and department members is a sign of progress. Last year, Employee Assistance Program members visited each police district to encourage officers to seek help if they were struggling emotionally. Department leaders said it was the first attempt at such outreach.
Seven Chicago police officers have died by suicide since last July, including three who took their own lives while on-duty or on department property — something that experts said is rare among officers.
The Police Department is unable to provide historical numbers on officer suicides, Guglielmi said. But the U.S. Department of Justice found that between 2013 and 2015, CPD had a suicide rate up to 60% higher than the national average for law enforcement officers.
“The goal is to eliminate suicide throughout the department,” Johnson said. “That is a lofty goal, but I believe it is one that is worth striving for.”
Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice desk. Follow him @pksmid.