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New York State Sheriffs’ Association launches new health & wellness program for all New York State Office Personnel with FirstNet

  • / Updated:
  • Concetta Durso 

The New York State Sheriffs’ Association (NYSSA) and FirstNet®, Built with AT&T announced the launch of an innovative, statewide health & wellness program available to all 58 county Sheriff’s Offices in New York. The new program comes as 177 first responders committed suicide last year nationally and rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD,) depression, and anxiety among public safety and law enforcement personnel far exceed the rates of the general population1.

Public safety service often comes with great risk and personal sacrifice — and New York’s sheriff deputies, corrections officers, 9-1-1 dispatchers, and command staff are no different. While first responders are dedicated to protecting the public, they often carry their burdens and trauma silently. NYSSA and FirstNet– the only nationwide, high-speed broadband communications platform dedicated for America’s first responders and the extended public safety community—believe that all sheriffs personnel should have access to the support systems they need to help manage stress and cope with grief, depression, anger, and other emotions that may stem from the stress of their jobs. The new comprehensive health & wellness program — which has been a top priority for NYSSA in recent years — answers this call and provides Sheriff’s Office staff with the support they deserve.             

The program includes a four-part approach to ensure all sheriffs’ employees have access to the help, support and training they deserve and need to deal with on-duty stressors and live a healthy and balanced life. These four pillars include:

  • New or improved Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) — NYSSA will provide all NYS Sheriff’s Offices the resources and training to establish new agency-based EAP programsor expand existing programs. Support will include in-person presentations, train-the-trainer sessions, and meetings with individual Sheriff’s Office personnel who will act as program leaders to implement a peer-based EAP program. NYSSA’s goal is for all Sheriff’s Offices to have their own dedicated EAP, connected through the New York Law Enforcement Assistance Program (NYLEAP) network. The new EAP resources have been developed with the expertise of several organizations including NYLEAP, the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS), and Individuals in Crisis and Group Crisis Intervention (ICISF). NYSSA/NYLEAP representatives will visit Sheriff’s Offices interested in establishing or enhancing EAP programs and offer easily accessible digital resources hosted on the association’s website. In addition, the program will include a pilot of a peer-to-peer hotline that all sheriff personnel and their families can use to anonymously discuss any issue they would like. Sheriff’s personnel from around the state will be trained to help staff the hotline, which will provide an early intervention program to keep stress from escalating into distress or worse.
  • Public Service Announcement — A new PSA campaign will utilize videos and other digital and social platforms to communicate the key message for Sheriffs’ Office personnel: “It’s OK to not be OK.” The campaign will publicize the challenges first responders face every day, highlight the effect that their service to their community can have on their mental health, and raise awareness among sheriff personnel about the resources available. The PSA is designed to help those working in Sheriff’s Offices shed the “be tough and suck it up” persona and accept the reality that it’s important to seek and receive assistance following a critical incident or traumatic experience.
  • Crisis and Trauma Training — Sheriff’s Office personnel will receive training from some of New York’s most respected mental health law enforcement organizationscovering topics including assisting individuals and groups in crisis, advanced crisis intervention and critical incident stress management, trauma resources assistance, PTSD, suicide prevention, and dealing with a fellow officer’s death. Family members of sheriff personnel will be encouraged to attend various trauma training sessions as applicable. Sheriff’s command staff will also receive specialized training such as Post-Critical Incident Seminar (PCIS) provided by NYLEAP. In addition, a peer-based training will be offered by accredited clinical professionals to assist in healthy ways to cope with stress and manage PTSD, based on a well-respected format developed by the FBI. 
  • School Resource Officer Support — A special health & wellness training for all School Resource Officers who are members of NYSSA’s Committee on Policing and Safeguarding Schools (C-PASS) is being created to respond to the increase in incidents of school violence. This training will ensure officers are better prepared and have the post-incident resources available. Trainings will be made available for School Resource Officers starting in early 2023.

In addition, NYSSA will establish a confidential peer-to-peer hotline staffed by deputy sheriffs and other personnel from around the state to provide early intervention and keep stress from escalating or manifesting.

The program has been developed over the past nine months under the leadership of current NYSSA President, Livingston County Sheriff Thomas Dougherty; Past-President, Washington County Sheriff Jeff Murphy; NYSSA executive staff; professional law enforcement training organizations; and sheriff’s personnel from across the state. It is made possible by financial and programming support from AT&T.

“AT&T and FirstNet are dedicated to supporting the health and wellness of our law enforcement and first responders across the country and are extremely honored and proud to support this critical wellbeing initiative with NYSSA for all Sheriff’s Office personnel across the Empire State,” said Amy Kramer, President, AT&T New York. “The rates of PTSD, depression, suicide and anxiety among other physical and mental ailments among public safety personnel far exceed the rates of the general population, and resources like this health and wellness program are needed to protect our first responder communities.”

“I am extremely proud of the New York State Sheriffs’ Association and our partnership FirstNet, Built with AT&T.  This partnership has made it possible to provide the necessary resources to our members regarding their personal and professional wellness,” said NYSSA President, Livingston County Sheriff Thomas Dougherty. “The jobs of law enforcement are extremely difficult and the events that we deal with are much different than most jobs.  These events can lead to long term stored traumas that most first responders avoid talking about due to the past culture in the profession.   The days of pretending that these events don’t have long term effects on our physical health and our mental health are behind us.   As the leaders in law enforcement, we are laser focused on changing the culture and ending the stigma; we want our members to know that it is ‘okay to not be okay’; we are here for you and we have gathered the professional resources to help.” 

“The inherent physical dangers to modern day law enforcement are widely known.  Every day of every week one can find an article, press release, or see media coverage about an officer injured in the line of duty,” said NYSSA Past-President, Cattaraugus County Sheriff Tim Whitcomb. “What has long been neglected however is the potential hazards to an officer’s emotional and mental health.  These measurable but unseen injuries have actually historically been forced to be hidden or kept secret by individual officers as the administrative law enforcement culture has unfortunately had a punitive approach in response to those officers that were actually brave enough to come forward and ask for help.  It is not only imperative to change this ill-advised draconian practice for individual officers, but it is necessary for their families and for the community that they protect and serve.  Simply stated a healthier police officer (physically, emotionally, and psychologically), is much better equipped to serve with the current complexities our society is presenting. Fostering and understanding that emotional and physiological injuries are equally as manageable as physical injuries and realizing that these injuries can and will be a product of direct and indirect exposure to trauma, cumulative trauma, and vicarious exposure to trauma is paramount to create the culture change that is so badly needed.  It is time to Protect and Serve those who Protect and Serve!”

“As law enforcement officers, our mental health is just as important as our physical health. Supporting first responder mental health starts with fighting stigma. Strength, bravery, and grit are highly valued — and employees often take on a “whatever it takes” mentality,” said NYSSA 2nd Vice President, Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple. “This perpetuates stigma around mental health conditions — based on the misconception that they’re a sign of weakness. Conversations about mental health are often swept under the rug or never stated. But the high rates of depression, PTSD, substance use disorder, and suicide make it clear that first responder mental health needs to be addressed early and often.”

Why is this important?

Compared to the general population, first responders experience higher rates of depression, post-traumatic stress, burnout, anxiety and other mental health issues.2 It is estimated that more than one-third of first responders deal with mental health struggles. One study found law enforcement officers have a more than 20-year difference in life expectancy compared to the average American male,3 while another revealed that first responders are more likely to die from suicide than in line of duty.4 Even before the pandemic, up to 1-in-4 first responders were estimated to experience post-traumatic stress.5 Stress can be a protective factor in the face of life-threatening events, but too many first responders go on to internalize and ignore traumatic experiences because of the stigma attached.

These staggering statistics and the impacts of the pandemic are just some of the reasons why public safety agencies such as the NYSSA are focusing more on first responder health and wellness. To complement these efforts, FirstNet, Built with AT&T established the FirstNet® Health & Wellness Coalition, which brings together more than two dozen member organizations that represent more than 5.1 million first responders. NYSSA will also be working with various coalition members and utilizing their resources to consistently improve upon the new health & wellness program.

FirstNet is public safety’s dedicated, nationwide communications platform, bringing public safety communications into the 21st century with new, innovative capabilities that support first responders’ incident response. Built with AT&T in public-private partnership with the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority) – an independent agency within the federal government, FirstNet collaborates with public safety stakeholders and leadership around the country to meet their needs to help them save lives and protect their communities across the nation.

The New York State Sheriffs’ Association is a not-for-profit corporation formed for the purpose of assisting sheriffs in the efficient and effective delivery of services to the public. It comprises all 58 elected and appointed sheriffs of the State of New York. Since 1934, the Sheriffs’ Association has helped New York’s sheriffs to serve and protect the citizenry through member-supported training programs, accreditation, legislative advocacy, and public safety programs.