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Legislators propose $3M program to treat law enforcement officers in mental crisis


Legislators propose $3M program to treat law enforcement officers in mental crisis

Mar 28, 2023 | 6:47 am ET
By Dana DiFilippo
Legislators propose $3M program to treat law enforcement officers in mental crisis
Law enforcement officers face unique stressors, say three lawmakers who want to spend $3 million on mental health services for them. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)

Three state lawmakers want to spend $3 million to expand mental health treatment for law enforcement officers in New Jersey.

Under a bill introduced last week, mental health providers would apply to the state Department of Human Services for grants to cover the cost of treating officers or their immediate family members who are suicidal or otherwise in mental health crisis.

Assemblyman Reginald Atkins (D-Union), a former Roselle mayor who chaired the borough’s public safety committee, is a sponsor of the bill. He said he saw firsthand how officers would benefit from mental health services.

“Law enforcement officers see things, they hear things, and we have to be able to respond and help them and their families live a successful life in the Garden State,” Atkins said.

Blue H.E.L.P., a nonprofit that tracks law enforcement suicides, found that 104 first responders died by suicide in New Jersey since it began collecting such data in 2016. A 2020 study done by University of Texas researchers found that 12% of police officers surveyed had a lifelong mental health diagnosis, while 26% reported current mental illness symptoms.

William Sullivan heads the New Jersey Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local #105, which represents more than 5,000 state correctional officers. Cost has been the biggest barrier for officers seeking mental health services, Sullivan said.

“When you finally muster up enough courage to talk to a therapist, they tell you: ‘Well, it’s a $100 copay.’ If I need to see them twice a week, now it’s $800 a month, and you think in your head, ‘Oh, I can’t afford $800 a month,’ and then you don’t go,” Sullivan said.

He warned that mental health services are so needed among New Jersey’s more than 30,000 law enforcement officers that “$3 million probably wouldn’t go too far.”

Still, he applauded the intention of the bill, saying he hopes lawmakers would include language to ensure therapists who receive funding are knowledgeable about law enforcement’s unique experiences.

“There’s things that happen in prison that you can’t really go home and talk to your family about because they won’t understand it, and you don’t want to put them through it,” he said. “I got 17 years in, and so I’ve seen a lot. If I talk to some new therapist out of college about things I see in prison, they might think I’m insane and say: ‘This guy needs to be committed.’”