FMPD officers create mental health support program for comrades

Police officers are one of the first lines of support at the scene of the disaster. It’s part of their job to help families during life-changing emergencies, but after hundreds of those calls, it’s hard for officers to open up about what they’ve been through.

In a WINK News exclusive interview, we spoke to officers heading a Fort Myers Police Department program working to start the conversations about mental health for those on the front lines of tragedy.

Some of the events they face that take a toll include shootings, domestic violence disputes, fatal crashes, child abuse, and more.

To those involved, it can feel like the worst moment in their life, but to police officers, it’s the type of call they respond to every day.

“People and the officer have to remember that there’s a heart behind this badge,” said FMPD Officer Steven Gruber, “it’s not just like this ultimate shield.”

So to protect their officers’ hearts and badges, FMPD police created a peer support program.

“It’s easier to go to somebody that you know, that you see and laugh and joke with all the time versus somebody that you’ve never met,” Gruber explained.

Officer Brittany Johnson is part of that peer support group, and says, “You have to make split-second decisions when you’re in this position in law enforcement so having your mental health in a good standing only helps you make better decisions.”

When officers deal with a tough call or issues at home, they can talk with designated officers confidentially.

And since they do the same job, they have a greater understanding than most.

In 2003, Gruber tragically crashed with a fellow officer. “Unfortunately, I was involved in a fatal crash with Officer Dan Starks.”

In 2018, Johnson rushed FMPD Officer Adam Jobbers-Miller to the hospital in her own patrol car when he was shot and killed three years ago.

She said, “I didn’t really talk to anyone. I didn’t open up. I didn’t say anything. It really didn’t affect me until later on down the line.”

We asked Johnson if, once it did sink in, if she felt comfortable talking to other people. “No. No, I still had that kind of I can’t feel this emotion I shouldn’t feel this you know I’m a police officer I have to keep a straight face I have to be strong for other people,” she explained.

Inspector General Donald Oswald didn’t want another officer to feel that way. When a law was passed last year allowing first responders and a support group of their peers to have confidential conversations, he created this program.

“I believe there is still a stigma against mental health,” Oswald said. “I think quite frankly those of us in law enforcement tend to perceive ourselves as being strong individuals and shouldn’t be hindered by emotions, but that being said, we all are.”

With a confidential support group, Johnson says, “I think that’s the key in this part being able to know that you can talk to someone, and they won’t go behind your back and talk to other people about it.”

Helping their own get the help they need, so they can continue to protect and serve.

Reporter:Dannielle Garcia
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