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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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