A murder-suicide shooting last month in Oakland that left four people dead and orphaned a young child remains on the minds of those who first responded to the home. It’s part of the peculiar stress that comes with a career in law enforcement and emergency response.

Crisis & Counseling Centers are now helping police prepare for that stress and helping them deal with it once it occurs through its Mental Health Resiliency Program, which provides law enforcement stress management and debriefing services in central Maine.

The program looks to help law enforcement officers cope with the stress of the job on two fronts: pre-incident stress management and post-incident debriefing.

The pre-incident stress management component involves regular sessions during which officers meet with Crisis & Counseling clinicians to discuss difficult experiences, monitor stress symptoms and connect the officers with services. Sessions range from 15 minutes to two hours.

The post-incident debriefing is available to first responders exposed to traumatic situations. The sessions help the responders “process events,” said Crisis & Counseling clinician Hannah Longley.

“The post-incident debriefings help officers and first responders process events after they have been involved in a particular incident, such as a suicide or traumatic death,” she said.

Kennebec County Interim Sheriff Ryan Reardon said agencies that responded to the Oakland shooting completed a debriefing that Reardon said was helpful. He said he has attended about four debriefings in the past five years.

“I can attest to the effectiveness of the program,” he said.

Reardon said the Maine Sheriffs’ Association offered a stress management class last March. The daylong training drew about 350 officers.

“The culture has certainly changed in the last 20 years,” Reardon said. “Rather than suffer in silence, officers and deputies are encouraged to talk about it.”

Officers daily respond to traumatic situations involving child abuse, serious accidents, sexual assault, domestic violence and death.

“These incidents are frequent for them, and I think over time it manifests itself so the officers may have a hard time dealing emotionally,” said Joseph Massey, chief of the Waterville Police Department, which has received two Mental Health Resiliency Program debriefings.

The Augusta Police Department received its first debriefing in 2013 after a teenage suicide, a particularly stressful incident that contributed to one emergency dispatcher’s resignation, recalled Deputy Chief Jared Mills. Crisis & Counseling clinicians lead group discussions and outlined the range of normal reactions to critical incidents.

“Officers have come away from debriefings thinking, ‘I may be quiet or I may not talk, but that’s normal after an incident like this,'” Mills said.

The Waterville Police Department at one time relied on its Employee Assistance Program and local clergy to help officers overcome emotional trauma.

“But debriefing in a group setting allows people to feel more comfortable and realize they’re not the only one,” Massey said. “People perceive police to be tough-skinned, but we’re just like everyone else. It wears you down after a while.”

A 2008 study by the University of Buffalo found that 23 percent of male officers and 25 percent of female officers reported more suicidal thoughts than the general population, according to a Crisis & Counseling release. The same study showed that officers more than 40 years old had a higher risk of a coronary event over a 10-year period compared to national averages.

Crisis & Counseling pre-incident sessions are aimed at reducing those risks by helping officers better deal with their stress.

“We work with law enforcement agencies to provide a baseline and follow up to help officers address and monitor the emotional and psychological impacts of providing law enforcement services, including exposure to some of the most extreme human experiences,” said Crisis & Counseling’s Chief Executive Officer Michael Mitchell, who helped design the program.

Longley said the program has been used informally for a couple of years but was recently formalized as a service. Law enforcement agencies contract for the pre-incident one-on-one counseling sessions, which clinicians recommend take place at least once per year. Crisis & Counseling spokeswoman Courtney Yeager said staff do an introductory group meeting, which costs $250, and follow-up individual sessions that cost $150 per person, per session.

“These costs reflect staff time, travel and follow-up,’ Yeager said.

Crisis & Counseling provides the post-incident debriefings for free. Agencies seeking the service can contact Crisis & Counseling as needed. “We are working toward developing a contract for debriefing services in the future,” Yeager said.

Longley said she was unable to discuss specifics of the program or how it has helped officers who have gone through it, but she said the feedback has been positive. Longley said physical and emotional stress, not to mention “compassion fatigue,” can wear on officers.

“Officers are human. They have human experiences,” she said. “We are asking them to respond to situations our brains are trained to run from. They override that and run toward these events.”

Research shows that officers in rural areas face different stress than those who work in more urban settings, Longley said. For example, it can take an officer an hour or more to respond to a call in northern Somerset County. Officers sometimes even have to fill up their cruisers with gasoline while en route, Longley said. Officers have to stay mentally alert the whole time, she said, and may even have the stress of knowing that someone is in danger while waiting for help to arrive.

“There are a lot of differences,” Longley said. “We’re trying to encompass all of that. By helping people manage their stress appropriately, we are able to make sure that by the end of their careers they are healthy, happy and able to enjoy retirement.”

Longley said officers are unlikely to seek help for mental health concerns that arise from their careers, often due to stigma.

“But we’re starting to see more awareness as research comes out about the impact of stress on physical health,” she said. “Officers are recognizing the connection between a healthy mind and a healthy body.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

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Twitter: @CraigCrosby4