Lakeland Assistant Police Chief Steven Pacheco wants to end the stigma behind first responders seeking help for mental health issues. | Courtesy LPD

In February 2015, Lakeland Police Officer Mike Lewis, his partner Nick Pollice and Detective Stacey Pough were trying to arrest a man who had held a gun on his ex-girlfriend and raped her a month earlier. The trio chased the suspect along Socrum Loop Road by Starbucks and Five Guys when the man pulled out a gun, shot himself in the leg and then aimed the weapon at Pough.

That’s when Lewis and Pollice shot and killed the man, which was ruled by the State Attorney’s office as a justifiable action.

But the incident didn’t end there for Lewis.

For more than a year afterward, Lewis would go to work and then go home, the place where he felt safest. But he was jumpy and hyper-alert. Loud noises bothered him, so much so that when one of this children accidentally dropped a book, Lewis yelled at him. At noisy restaurants, he would get up and tell his wife they needed to leave now, but she would refuse to go. Those closest to him noticed that something was wrong.

“My best friend and the guy I actually work with kind of looked at me differently one day and I said, ‘Hey, are we good?’ He said ‘Something's different about you,’ and kind of pointed out that something was going on,” Lewis recalled. “About the same time, my wife kind of gave me an ultimatum of, ‘Hey, something needs to change or something's gonna change in this house.’ (She had) just kind of given all the grace she could give.”

Lewis knew he needed help. But there can be a stigma for first responders – law enforcement, firefighters, and paramedics – surrounding mental health and getting help. Some officers and deputies fear they might have their service weapon taken away or even be asked to leave the force. A year after the shooting, Lewis finally picked up the phone and made the call that started pulling him out of his mental quagmire.

Ending the stigma

Lewis, Assistant Police Chief Steven Pacheco and Fire Rescue Chief Shane Reynolds have worked for the last several years to change the culture for Lakeland first responders regarding getting help, and make it easier to do so.

Pacheco spoke to the Lakeland City Commission Monday morning about some of the changes they have made.

“I can tell you, probably every police officer sitting in there can tell you over the course of their career, they’ve probably run into some administrator or somebody who has basically told them to deal with it and ‘suck it up' and go back to business because we don't have time to sit and process things,” Pacheco told Lakeland City Commissioners on Monday.

“You’ve got to move on to the next call. And that is one bad aspect of our job, that we do go from call to call to call and we don't have time to process some of the things that we see and some of the things that we deal with,” he said. “So again, we have to realize that the exposure that our officers go through can lead to certain issues and the things that we worry about are the anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress and post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Lewis is now head of the department’s peer support group. And Pacheco explained what the police and fire departments are doing to help their staff after they’ve encountered a traumatic situation.

“We see things humans are not designed to see … over and over and over again,” Pacheco pointed out in his presentation.

Pacheco recently introduced a phone app that officers, firefighters and paramedics can use to take a mental health quiz to see if they need to take the next step.

“A lot of times, you know, we deal with that danger and we deal with those situations that are settled in days or weeks. But the psychological impact of those things lasts for a long time. And some officers deal with them even years and years later,” Pacheco told commissioners. “Our public safety officers are out there answering calls, and some of them could be one call away from a call that affects them for the rest of their lives, as we saw this last week.”

Last Wednesday, Officer Jamie Smith, 30, responded to a 9-1-1 call about a shooting near Simpson Park. He followed three suspects in a car and then chased one of them, who was holding a gun. As Smith rounded a corner, the suspect turned, faced Smith and shot him in the foot. Smith continued to chase him and wound up shooting the suspect – a 13-year-old with a history of armed burglary. Both had non-life-threatening injuries. The 13-year-old and his 14- and 19-year-old accomplices now face attempted murder charges.

Research shows high rates of behavioral health problems

Lakeland Police Chief Sam Taylor, left, and Assistant Chiefs Hans Lehman, Steven Pacheco, and Marvin Tarver at the scene of a police shooting on May 10, 2023. | Kimberly C. Moore, Jazbablog

“It is estimated that 30% of first responders develop behavioral health conditions, as compared with 20% in the general population,” Pacheco said, citing an article in Psychiatric Times. “Research shows law enforcement report much higher rates of suicide, depression, PTSD, burnout, and other anxiety-related mental health conditions compared to other professions.”

Statistics also show that, nationally, 66 first responders have died in the line of duty – including gunfire, car accidents and duty-related illness – so far in 2023, while 49 of them have died by suicide. In 2022, 346 died in the line of duty, while 185 chose to end their lives.

“What's even more concerning is that, in this last week, as I've been preparing this presentation for you, I've actually had to change these numbers three times for the suicides that have happened this last year,” Pacheco said. “So that's pretty alarming that it's occurring at that rate in the United States.”

Pacheco said incidents in their personal lives can also spill over into their work, which happened to him in 2007 when his second wife, Anna, who had been suffering with a painful illness, died by suicide while Pacheco was out of town.

“After going through that incident, I didn't know if I wanted to be a police officer anymore,” Pacheco told commissioners. “I didn't know if I had it in me, after going through my own traumatic incident, to go and help other people in similar situations.”

Pacheco said it was counseling, the department’s peer support program, and its chaplain corps that got him to a better place mentally. One of his peers, in particular, told him something that became the turning point for him.

“What he said to me was that … I had a powerful story, you know, and that as long as I was able to get through it and heal from my experience, my traumatic incident, that I would be able to provide that assistance to somebody else, and helping them through their traumatic incident in the same manner,” Pacheco said. “In other words, if we had to deal with somebody who had a significant other or a family member die by suicide, that I would be able to communicate with them and in a more empathetic way than I had ever had before in my police career. And that basically came true many times after my wife's death.”

Training

Pacheco said LPD and LFD no longer wait until an incident happens to emphasize the importance of mental health. Ending the stigma begins during the first weeks of training of new recruits.

“That's where the conversation starts. That's where breaking the stigma of talking about mental health and being able to get help starts,” Pacheco said. “If they can feel comfortable from the beginning, very beginning of their career, knowing that their agency and their administrators support them and want them to get help when something happens – it could be 10 years later, it could be 15 years later – but they may remember that conversation.”

Recruits’ family members are also invited to that training sessions because they are often the first person to notice when something is wrong.

In addition:

  • Officers, firefighters and paramedics are encouraged to take care of their physical health, which science shows contributes to good mental health.
  • A dozen chaplains are on hand to help with everything from promotion ceremonies to death notifications.
  • Lewis’ peer support team is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to help anyone who needs it. They also respond to traumatic incidents, monitor major calls for service and visit with first responders after those incidents.
  • Information posters are placed around department buildings, but officers, firefighters and paramedics are also given wallet cards with the same information, including links to the app and the phone number to call for help.

LPD and LFD joined forces to hire the four “culturally competent” licensed mental health counselors, who are passionate, responsive and discreet and have experience with law enforcement, fire-fighting and the military. All sessions can remain anonymous.

Lakeland Regional Health is also partnering with LPD and LFD, providing first responders with licensed psychologists and psychiatrists. Lakeland Regional also helped to design a new “direct access” process for first responders in crisis that does not involve a trip to the Emergency Room. Instead, they have a private room and have limited staff interaction for admissions – because many first responders deal with hospital staff on a regular basis. This new system lets them retain their privacy.

Pacheco signed up the department for a new cellphone app – Lighthouse Health and Wellness. It launched in March and all employees have “easy/confidential” access to all health and wellness resources via the app. Through the app, they can be connected to one of the four providers experienced in working with first responders and vetted by the agency. Use of the counseling can be anonymous and free for first responders, both active and retired, and their families.

There are assessments on the app for: depression, alcohol abuse, work-life balance, anxiety and distress, and caffeine consumption.

Users can also utilize the app to track personal wellness, physical fitness and health, substance use and addiction, and financial fitness.

The app is costing the department around $3,300, which Pacheco calls a bargain, considering some other apps are $20,000-$30,000.

“You can get the app free for your agency, but if you pay a certain price, that gives you the ability to customize it and be able to have some control over the app to push out training,” Pacheco said, noting that they can send links to training videos to all 400 of their employees at once through the app. “They're committed to public safety.

But Pacheco said they know there are areas where they need to improve.

Alice Nuttall
Alice Nuttall

Lakeland Regional Health’s Director of Behavioral Health Alice Nuttall, who was at Monday’s City Commission meeting, has worked to change a kink in the system. While workman’s comp covers inpatient care, it hasn’t covered outpatient visits. Nuttall has developed a new contract between Lakeland Regional and the city of Lakeland’s employee assistance program for first responders.

“I’m happy to say I just had a meeting with Alice Nuttall this week on some of the things that we were discussing, but she told me, after probably more than a year and a half, that that contract is basically waiting for signatures and we got the logistics and that worked out,” Pacheco said. “So that's great news for our members.”

In the end, he said, it all comes down to a commitment on the part of leadership.

“I'm proud to say that, you know, as administrators of both of our agencies, we lead by example, and we believe very strongly that it's important to take care of your mental health,” Pacheco said.

For immediate help, law enforcement officers can call COPLINE 24/7 at 800-267-4563.

Anyone having suicidal thoughts can call 988, a crisis lifeline.

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Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to Jazbablog in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at [email protected] or 863-272-9250.

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