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Mental health on the front lines is a focus for Arkansas first responders and military personnel

In observance of suicide prevention and awareness month, law enforcement and military personnel are shining a light on mental health for those on the front lines.

ARKANSAS, USA — September is Suicide Awareness and Prevention Month, and it's no secret that law enforcement and military personnel face many traumatic and stressful scenarios on the job. 

Sgt. Murphy with the Fayetteville Police Department (FPD) says the number of critical incidents experienced by police and firefighters is higher than most civilians. 

“Most people, you know, experience less than 10 critical incidents in their whole life, but officers and firefighters will experience hundreds of those throughout their career,” Murphy says.

Law enforcement agencies are trained to protect, serve, and keep the community safe in crisis situations, but what about when they're in a crisis of their own? Sgt. Matt Ray with the Springdale Police Department (SPD) says “In my time here at the police department, we obviously get suicides ... A lot of stuff we see does kind of wear on us mentally, and emotionally.”

That emotional and mental trauma does take a toll on officers who often have to seek out resources within their departments. 

“Being able to talk to somebody inside of the department really helped ... understanding that 'hey, what we see is abnormal, but what we feel is normal' has helped out a lot to a lot of guys,” Ray recalls. 

Fayetteville Police Department also uses similar programs in their department. Murphy says they have a peer-to-peer team that is "fairly new here, it's where peers, other police officers, will talk ... We use counselors that officers can go to and that's confidential, and they get a certain number of free sessions where they can talk about issues they're having, whether that be at home, on the job, or combined. A lot of stuff can happen on the job, and we make officers aware not to take that stuff home. I think that's kind of the stuff we try to work on through these counseling sessions."

Sgt Tony Murphy has worked in law enforcement for 20 years and says over the years the culture of mental health within the force has changed, “It used to be hidden, people wouldn't talk about it. They'd want to be macho and act like nothing bothered them, but things do bother us. We do need that help. I think that stigma has kind of gone away in the last 5 to 10 years. That's good for officers where they can talk about stuff that's bothering them and stuff that they see. I think it's very good to be able to lean on your co-workers when it comes to that.”

As for military personnel deployed in combat zones overseas, Sheep Dog Impact Assistance founder and former Marine Lance Nutt says suicide, trauma, and PTSD, rates are higher.

“The challenge, I think, unfortunately, with our first responders and our military men and women is that they're taught to be tough, and not to deal with the trauma. Unfortunately, in many cases, if they do, they're fired from their job. So in that case, if you're a law enforcement officer, or firefighter, or even serving in the military, and you try to find help, the help is not there.”

And that's where the sheepdog steps in, to help active duty, veterans, and first responders manage their overall mental wellness.

Nutt says “Our programs are designed to teach men and women who have served in the military or as first responders how to turn their struggle into strength. We teach that through a seven-day program called Warrior Path, and then a five-day program called Struggle Well, which truly dig deep into the root causes behind what it is that they're struggling with. And ultimately, we teach them how to not allow their past to define their future, and through post-traumatic growth, teach them how to live their best lives,”

The organization says any service member is eligible for the sheepdog assistance programs free of charge. To learn more about their programs click here.

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