Badge of Life Interview with Chairman Ron Clark

A Study of Police Suicide in 2008-2016
Girl's Letter to School
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"
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"
Cumulative PTSD - a Silent Killer
Dealing with a Suicidal Police Officer

Ron Clark is the Chairman of the Board of Badge of Life, providing resources, education, training and hope to law enforcement personnel across the United States and Canada.  In addition to serving a full career with the Connecticut State Police, he is a registered nurse, has an associate’s degree in law enforcement, a Bachelor’s Degree in Public Safety Administration and Education and a Graduate degree in Counseling / Education.  He's been an Advanced Peer Support Officer for 43 years.  Dr. Marla W. Friedman recently had an opportunity to interview him regarding his role in law enforcement, the “mental health checks” that are the foundation of his organization, and his views on the role of emotional well-being in law enforcement.

Badge of Life Interview with Ron Clark

MWF:  Can you tell us how you started your career in law enforcement? 

RC: I was raised in a small blue collar town where my mother owned a restaurant that was frequented by law enforcement personnel.  She was a very gregarious person and the officers enjoyed coming in for meals where they were welcomed and accepted.  Many of the officers were World War II veterans and it gave me the idea of going into the service and then law enforcement myself.  I enlisted at 17, the first in my high school class to sign up.  I attended Air Police technical training for 10 weeks and then was sent to Germany and began my training in as a canine handler. All of this was during the Berlin crisis and Cuban crisis. 

When I returned from overseas and was discharged, it was difficult to get a job with a police department so I went to nursing school on the G.I. bill.  I worked as a Registered Nurse in a hospital in the ER and ICU.I still had the bug for law enforcement, though, so I applied to the Connecticut State Police, wanting to help with emergency medical training.  I taught recruits and also field troopers emergency medical training, which ultimately blended into one of the first peer support programs.  That’s how I combined law enforcement with medical and emotional issues. 

MWF: What drew your interest in the high suicide rate and the devastating number of our officers who develop PTSD?  

RC: That's a very personal story.  In 1975 I began talking about emotional wellness. I had a trooper in my in-service class at the State Police Academy that wanted to talk to me, but he was called out on duty and we were unable to get together.  That same night he killed himself. This event impacted me to such a degree that I committed myself to the emotional health and safety of all officers. At that point I became a “risk-taker.”  I approached the Captain about starting an Employee Assistance Program.  I was already doing physical fitness and emergency care, so it just seemed logical.  I was fairly personable and I found that officers approached me to talk about a wide range of issues.  I told them it was confidential and voluntary and they felt comfortable coming to me with their concerns. I had a lot of exposure with all officers regardless of rank because I was in uniform—and a nurse. 

MWF: How do you handle the frustration of knowing officers need psychological help, but have so many roadblocks in their way to getting adequate treatment? 

RC:  It’s truly a slow process and it can be frustrating, but I can see continuous uphill progress in everything we do at Badge of Life.  There has been a steady movement and a drastic change in attitudes over the last ten years.  My hope is that they will eventually all get their needs met through, education, peer support,  and psychotherapy without the stigma that was once attached to seeking a healthy mind and body.  

The job of a police officer in today’s world is toxic at its best.  I just can’t stress enough that psychological skills in law enforcement are as important as tactical skills.  Ultimately, it comes down to the leadership in law enforcement stepping up and modeling appropriate behavior and encouraging healthy habits that protect the officer from cradle to grave.  

MWF: Have you seen a transformation over the years in the way mental health and the stigma attached to it has changed, or are we still in the middle of the battle? 

RC:  Yes, there's been a significant change in recognizing the emotional needs of the officer.  Stigma, though still present, has been evaporating a little at a time. In the early ‘70’s there was a concept developed called the “shoot team”.  It was an early form of peer support.  When there was an officer involved shooting an officer who had been through one themselves was paired with the officer who had just been involved in a shooting. Support and understanding was the goal of the team.  Chiefs began to see the need for the reduction in stigma and the need to start resilience programs.  We finally began to see literature focusing on these concepts.  It’s been a slow but steady climb that BOL has always supported. 

MWF:  What about this whole concept of “annual mental health checks?”  Tell us a little bit about that idea. 

RC:  It’s a relatively simple concept and began about ten years ago with Badge of Life. The idea is based on the fact that law enforcement, particularly over time, is one of the most toxic, caustic career fields imaginable.  The emotional cost to the individual officer is immense, often leading to anxiety, sleepless nights (or days), depression, substance abuse, and even posttraumatic stress disorder and suicide.  These things are absolutely indisputable. The idea is that, in an ongoing way, officers need an outlet and a means of monitoring and maintaining their mental health.  Certainly, they’re psychologically screened before coming on, but maintaining their mental health becomes more challenging as the years go by.  Critical incident trauma is certainly a problem, but the challenge faced by cumulative trauma is even greater, more widespread, and difficult to treat. 

MWF:  How does it work? 

RC:  Well, we came up with the idea of the “annual mental health check” as a means of maintaining a good balance over the years.  The idea is that an officer should visit a licensed therapist at least once a year for a check-in, designed to identify not only emerging problems, but to identify and enhance what has been working well—and identify what hasn’t been working so well.  It may take more than one or two visits to resolve any beginning problems, but the opportunity is there.  Emotional survival for a 20 and 30 year career is the goal. 

MWF:  Does this mean using the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or departmental psychologist? 

RC:  It certainly could.  These resources are generally excellent and should be taken advantage of.  There’s often some fear involved, though.  Some officers remain convinced that there’s a problem with confidentiality—that the EAP or departmental psychologist is a conduit of some sort to the chief of police or internal affairs section.   

MWF:  How do we counter that? 

RC:  Simple.  To combat this and to be sure officers take advantage of the mental health checks, departments should do several things—first, they need to make sure everyone understands these visits are strictly voluntary and confidential.  Mandating them has been tried and doesn’t work—officers see it as a “fitness for duty exam” and will say whatever they think is needed to pass muster.  Secondly, if they do have a fear of the departmental resources, departments must let it be known that these voluntary checks can be with an “outside” therapist of the officer’s own choice and at their own expense (or co-pay).  There, confidentiality is assured because the records are absolutely inaccessible to the department. 

MWF:  Isn’t the cost of seeing an outside therapist a deterrent? 

RC:  It shouldn’t be.  Most officers have good insurance and the cost of a co-pay is minimal.  Frankly, compared to the cost of that big pickup truck, RV or boat in the driveway of many officers, the cost is nothing. 

MWF:  What about reporting?  How does a department track who goes and who doesn’t? 

RC:  There can be no tracking.  Again, it must be totally voluntary and confidential for it to work.  For those that insist there be some measure of the program’s success, progress should be by monitoring the level of things like sick leave, complaints, law suits, internal affairs actions, alcoholism and even injuries.  After all, the officer who is preoccupied by anxiety or depression is a danger to himself and everyone around him. 

MWF:  One question comes to mind—are these mental health checks for the officers only? 

RC:  Not at all.  They’re for everyone from the chief on down.  Even dispatchers should be included.  The chief, actually, plays a particularly important role, one we call, “Leadership.”  He or she should be the first one going in for a “mental health check,” to set the example for all the ranks below.  Following suit should be the rest of the command staff and the supervisors.  All of them, then, should be willing to share their experience with the squad of officers, thereby encouraging them to do the same.  This, of course, should be done at least once a year and even periodically during roll calls. 

MWF:  Doesn’t all of this negate the role of the peer support officer? 

RC:  Not at all.  Remember, the peer support officer has never been a “therapist.”  Instead, he or she provides an ongoing support system and a confidential (within limits) “sounding board” for day to day problems, complaints and concerns.  Where the peer support officer becomes particularly important is when they identify an officer as being in need of counseling and guide them into it when it’s needed during the year.  The annual mental health check system could not survive without the assistance and active support of the peer support officer. 

 MWF: What are your main goals as Chairman of the Board at BOL? 

RC:  We continue to monitor and report on police suicides across the country—I want to see that continue.  Additionally, I want to continue providing the best possible statistics and programs, particularly the “annual mental health checks,” to law enforcement personnel and leaders.  Both our website, our newsletters and other means of disseminating information are all ways of doing that.  It’s proven to be a sizeable task—but worth it.

Badge of Life
Click to return to BOL website