'The silent sniper': Law enforcement officers meet in Ardmore for PTSD, mental health training
In 2019, a record number of 228 United States law enforcement officers died by suicide. That number far outweighs the amount of line of duty deaths and the nation is on track to hit those kinds of numbers again this year.
Ardmore Police Department Detective Eric Grisham said it can be difficult for law enforcement officials in more rural areas like southern Oklahoma to access training dealing with PTSD, depression and suicide. Many have to drive across the state to attend these kinds of trainings.
That’s why last year Grisham worked to bring a training titled “Tactical PTSD: The Silent Sniper” to the Ardmore area. The training greatly impacted Grisham, and again this year on Sept. 15 and Sept. 16 around 170 officers from across the state traveled to Ardmore to attend.
During the two days, approximately 15 officers from the Ardmore Police Department and several from the Carter County Sheriff’s Office attended. Others from around Tulsa and Oklahoma City also traveled to Ardmore for the training, and spouses of officers were encouraged to attend to help provide them with some insight into what they’re going through.
“Being in southern Oklahoma, in our area, we really don’t get access to this level of training unless we travel to Oklahoma City or to Tulsa, or to another state for that matter,” Grisham said. “That’s why I wanted to bring it in and give everybody that maybe couldn’t afford or make it to the training in the metro areas of Oklahoma to come in for a free class.”
The Ardmore Police Department, Lighthouse Behavioral Wellness Centers and Ardmore Behavioral Health Collaborative all worked together to help ensure the training was available.. Lighthouse Director Jessica Pfau said so many officers signed up this year that they had to move the location to a larger space at the Ardmore Train Depot.
“The presenters are three amazing law enforcement heroes who have lived through very tough situations and recognize the need for this type of training,” Pfau said. “They now travel the country presenting courses on this subject.”
Chief Jason Fitzwater, Detective Raul Rivas and Sheriff Michael Neal together have around 90 years of law enforcement experience. For Fitzwater, it was more of a combination of small things, going from call to call with different levels of stress, that triggered his PTSD.
Rivas and Neal shared a similar experience in that they were involved in shootings, in addition to the everyday stress of the job. The highs and lows of each different call and experience while on the job can begin to wear on any officer, Grisham said.
“You may go to a drowned kid in a pool one minute and then the next minute you’re speaking in front of some kids at a school or reading them a book,” Grisham said. “That takes a toll mentally on us because you have to go from way up here to way down here.”
For this reason, PTSD is extremely common among law enforcement officials. “I would venture to say that every police officer has some form of PTSD if they’ve been in the job long enough,” Grisham said.
The training teaches officers how to deal with things like PTSD, signs to look for and ultimately that it’s okay to reach out for help. In the past, there has been a lot of stigma associated with mental health on the police force and seeking help, Grisham said.
“We’re really trying to change the stigma because when I started 14 years ago if you mentioned anything about ‘Hey I’m feeling this kind of way or I’m having these kinds of issues’, if you mentioned any of that years ago it was like ‘You’ll be alright, suck it up. Let’s go’,” Grisham said.
But that’s not the case anymore. Grisham said he believes law enforcement is beginning to get over those past notions of “being tough” and not seeking help. “We want to make it more okay to speak up and say something,” Grisham said.
The job of a law enforcement officer has also become increasingly stressful amid a tense atmosphere in 2020. Protests regarding law enforcement and race relations have been going on for months across the nation and though few have occurred locally, the atmosphere does take a toll on officers.
“We see on the news on what’s happening with law enforcement in this country and there is an active war on law enforcement in this country,” Grisham said. “It does take a toll on all of us — we see it, we know it’s very real, we know that it could happen in a heartbeat here in Ardmore, Oklahoma. That plays into how we, even here in southern Oklahoma, go about doing our jobs on a daily basis.”
There are several nonprofit organizations that law enforcement officers can reach out to if they need help. One resource is copline.org, a national 24 hour hotline that is confidential and manned by retired law enforcement officers.
“The one thing I think we all like about the suicide prevention hotline and things like copline is that it’s completely anonymous and the people that are answering the phone at the other end are cops,” Grisham said. “It makes us a little bit more at ease opening up with our problems.”
Officers can also contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255, and many departments offer employee assistance programs that officers can utilize. To receive help from copline, officers can call 1-800-267-5463 or visit www.copline.org.
Grisham said he hopes to continue to bring the training to the Ardmore area for many years to come, and to reach a larger number of law enforcement officers each time.
“If we can save just one life or reach just one person with this kind of training it’s well worth it,” Grisham said. “Don’t feel ashamed of doing it, you’re not alone in the fight. We’ve got your back.”