Interview with BOL Founder Andy O'Hara

A Study of Police Suicide in 2008-2016
Police Suicide - What It ISN'T
Master Police Coaches - Building a Better Cop
PTSD - The "Hidden Injury"
Police Suicide - Making a Difference
The Importance of Therapy
Police Suicide - the SOLUTIONS
Interview with the BOL Chairman
So-Called "Helpers"
A MATTER OF PUBLIC TRUST
2016 Police Suicide Study
Annual Mental Health Checks
Stigma - The Human Stain
2016 Police Suicides: the NSOPS Study
Police Stress vs Trauma--a difference?
Does PTSD Cause Violence? from the Badge of Life
A New Police Suicide Prevention Program for the 21st Century
Police Suicide, Just a Bad Choice?
Chiefs Lead the Way
"Bring a Buddy"

“Quiet Courage”

 

I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to work with and learn from a law enforcement officer who survived several traumatic events from which no one would come away from unscarred.  While the temptation to give up following this tragic life event would be a common reaction by most people, Andy O’Hara challenged himself to understand, integrate and then use what he had experienced to build a national program that specifically educates and helps rehabilitate other officers who have also been exposed to the toxic and cumulative effects of the daily life of a police officer.

Empirical research, resource collection and dissemination of cutting edge information to identify and treat cumulative trauma have provided hope and assistance to those who seek and deserve a meaningful, safe and healthy life. O’Hara’s protocol has been adopted by many professionals in law enforcement and the mental health field. O’Hara, unlike many in the field, is a quiet and unassuming man who keeps a low profile while working tirelessly behind the scenes at Badge of Life.  He has consented to this interview only to advance the cause of changing the face of law enforcement as we progress through the 21 century.

 

--Marla W. Friedman, Psy.D

 

MWF:  Please describe the mission and goals of Badge of Life.

 

AFO:    Traditionally, a nonprofit organization has a mission statement that contains a formal statement of several goals and values.  Badge of Life is unique in that it has one goal—the betterment of police mental health everywhere in the United States.  Everything Badge of Life does is with this target in mind.  It’s a more effective way of combating what many other organizations are “about”—preventing police suicide. Badge of Life stands apart from the others in its perspective that a truly healthy police officer will not commit suicide.  It’s the only sensible way to approach it.

 

MWF: How did you meet up with Chairman of the Board Ron Clark?  As a team you are so compatible and unstoppable in your mission.

 

AFO:  Ron came along about six years ago after he ran across the BOL website and asked how he could help.  I pretty quickly learned that Ron has the gift of “gab,” an ability to clearly and succinctly articulate what Badge of Life is all about.  Coupled with my ability to write, we became like Rodgers and Hammerstein, with Ron handling committees, presentations and telephone contacts, and me doing the writing—articles, correspondence and research.  It’s been a great pairing up that’s worked effectively over the years.  After a time, Ron was selected Chairman of the Board and I deliberately stepped down to the role of a Director.

 

MWF:  Why did you step down?

 

AFO:  I thought it was time for new blood and fresh ideas.  Also, there’s a malady among nonprofits, especially those that are dedicated to suicide prevention.  They are dependent on one person—generally the founder—for leadership and, once that person leaves, the group flounders and dies out.  I felt it was a credit to BOL that the leadership could change but the group could still thrive.  That, I think, is a testament to the strong mission of Badge of Life.

 

MWF:  I notice that one of the things you’re very passionate about is the need for “mental health checkups.”  What, exactly, are they?

 

AFO:  Mental health checkups are at the very heart of our program, and they’re a simple concept.  The idea is that, once a year, all officers should be going in to see a therapist, for a couple of reasons.  One is to take a look at the previous year and see how things have been working.  If things have been going well, then maybe there are some things that can be enhanced.  Police work, however, is a really toxic, caustic career field and there’s a good likelihood that not everything has been going perfectly.  So this visit—or visits in many cases—is a chance to look at resiliencies and individual strengths and build on them for the coming year.

 

Secondly, the mental health check can result in a business card from the therapist that can be carried in the officer’s wallet in the event a future visit is needed—for example, in the case of a critical incident that puts the officer on unsure footing.

 

MWF:  Aren’t officers hesitant about going in and seeing a “shrink?”

 

AFO:  Of course they are.  That’s why the key words are “voluntary,” “confidential,” and “choice.”  Mandating annual checkups has been tried and simply won’t work—officers will go in and say anything they think the psychologist wants to hear.  “I’m fine, Doc—everything is great.  Can I go now?”

 

The whole idea behind an annual mental health check is that they be voluntary.  This is an important idea.  No one mandates that an officer get his teeth cleaned once or twice a year.  No one mandates that they get a routine physical every year.  Still, many officers, if not most, do both.  We’re just trying to get the officer’s “mental health” included in that annual ritual.  But, if an officer doesn’t want to go, we can’t force him—that invalidates the whole process.  It’s a generational change that will happen over time.

 

In the same way, visits need to be strictly confidential.  Cops are scared that a departmental psychologist or even an EAP therapist is a “pipeline” to the chief.  We have to get past that.  This is where “choice” gets into it.  If the officer is so nervous that confidentiality is still an issue, they should be encouraged to go “outside” the department to an independent psychologist or therapist.

 

MWF:  Won’t going outside the department cost money?

 

It just might.  If insurance doesn’t pick up the tab or won’t cover it, the officer might have to pay out of pocket.  That’s still a pretty small price to pay to hang onto your career in this crazy field.  

 

MWF:  If the chief is kept out in the cold, how does he know if the program is succeeding?

 

AFO:  The chief has all kinds of data he can measure success by.  Look at the cost savings, for one thing.  Obviously, an emotionally healthy squad doesn’t have suicides.  An emotionally healthy squad has less sick leave, fewer complaints and lawsuits, less alcoholism and fewer injuries.  Why fewer injuries?  Because an officer who’s preoccupied by stress, anxiety or depression is a hazard to himself, the public, and other officers who are depending on him to be his sharpest.

 

MWF:  So what can a police chief do to get a program like this going?

 

AFO:  First, he has to show leadership.  Leadership, in this case, means being the first to go in for a mental health check, whether it’s with the departmental psychologist, the EAP or an outside therapist.  The chief then sells the idea to his middle management and supervisors, encouraging them to do the same.  Peer support officers, if they have them, should be included.  Once these steps are covered, it’s a matter of selling it to the squad.

 

MWF: How did you come up with the idea of the Mental Health Check-in? 

 

AFO:  I came up with it several years after I retired.  Looking back on the PTSD and depression that had forced me into retirement, I asked myself what I might have done differently.  The answer was, see a therapist regularly to let off steam.

 

MWF: Can you tell us about your current research? Do you feel comfortable making any predictions about police suicides?

 

AFO:  Right now, we’re preparing for a full year’s study of police suicides in 2016. We’re doing a practice run, currently, for the third and fourth quarters of 2015.  We saw a drop in suicides during 2012, and we’ll be interested to see if the trend continues.  While it’s early on, we’ve already detected some positive changes that might suggest a further reduction. 

 

MWF:  Why might there be a continued drop in police suicides?

 

AFO:  That’ll take additional study.  It seems reasonable to assume, however, that another drop could be attributed to increased education and awareness in the police ranks.  We’ll have to wait and see.

 

MWF: Can you tell us about your background, both in the military and as a police officer?

 

AFO:  I served four years in the military security police and, from there, entered the California Highway Patrol.  I served there as an officer and a Sergeant for 24 years until I was retired with posttraumatic stress disorder.

 

MWF: Thanks for participating in this interview.  I do believe that continued research, practical training and education aimed at the leaders in law enforcement, mental health professionals and the public will in fact yield positive results for all of us involved in the field of public safety.

 

 


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