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On a Mission to Protect Police Mental Health

When Officer Todd Gyure from the Garland, Texas Police Department showed up on the doorsteps of one of the most prestigious mental health organizations in the U.S , he didn’t have a hi-tech presentation or a fancy title to his name. He just had a mission, and that mission was to bring desperately needed mental health resources to his fellow police officers.

“We’re exposed to the worst scenarios imaginable,” Todd explained during our interview. “When I initially joined the police twenty years ago, we received no training on how to mentally handle this reality.”

With more officers dying from suicide than in the line of duty each year, Todd decided to take action. His focus is on networking with industry experts and non-profit organizations to bring what he calls a “buffet” of culturally competent mental health resources to his police department.

But Todd was not satisfied with bringing these resources into his police department alone. In addition to partnering with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), he helped establish the national Overwatch Peer Support program and the Law Enforcement Mental Health Alliance of North Texas. Just as Todd realized that an individual should not suffer mental distress alone, he understood that it would take a village to make a meaningful impact on the mental health landscape of the law enforcement community.

With twenty years of police experience under his belt, Todd is a member of the S.W.A.T team as a hostage negotiator and a certified mental health officer, serving as the mental health liaison for the Garland, Texas Police Department. He holds additional certifications in the areas of suicide prevention, crisis intervention, resilience training, and critical incident stress management. He is also a certified police field training officer and vehicle close quarters battle instructor. Clearly, Todd has no intentions of slowing down when it comes to innovating and improving the lot of his fellow officers.

“No matter your profession, you want your people showing up to work feeling rested, healthy, and happy,” says Todd. “Why should it be any different for the police?”

Jessica: Tell me a bit about your background and what inspired you to join the police?

Todd: It was on a career day in sixth grade that I knew I wanted to join the police. I don’t have any relatives that served in the police. It was just something that seemed important and interesting to me and had a touch of the superhero to it.

Instead of heading right to the police, though, I did my undergrad studies in sociology. I was interested in how our environment steers us and sometimes takes over our belief system. It was only when I was 30 years old that it hit me that if I really wanted to join law enforcement, now was the time to do it. It’s hard for me to explain what drew me to this field. I guess you could say joining the police is a calling.

Jessica: Can you share a specific story about what compelled you to get more involved in the mental health aspects of your field?

Todd: A typical experience working as a police officer is being exposed to trauma after trauma after trauma. We’re exposed to the worst scenarios imaginable and when I initially joined the police twenty years ago, we received no training on how to mentally handle this reality.

After only being a police officer for a few years, on New Year’s Eve, I witnessed someone shoot himself in the head from very close range after we spent 45 minutes negotiating with him. I had trouble sleeping afterwards; my brain wouldn’t stop replaying the scene. I started to wonder if I was really cut out for the police. If only I had received the proper mental training, I would have realized at the time that I was having a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.

Several years later there was an opening, so I applied and was accepted into our SWAT team as a hostage negotiator. I received excellent training from the FBI and other agencies on how to empathetically listen and connect with people during even the most horrible crises. No threats, no use of force, just using communication to convince another person to take certain actions.

That’s what got me thinking about the power of communication and how it can be this huge force multiplier for officer safety. It’s what got me interested in the brain health side of things.

Jessica: It sounds like your background in sociology meant you were already leaning towards that angle in the law enforcement environment to begin with. Now, you mentioned that when you joined the police in 2002, there was no training or resources addressing mental health. Only in the past few years are we seeing wellness programs and other mental health initiatives pop up in the first responder and law enforcement community. So, why now?

Todd: Part of it has to do with increased media coverage. In 2019, for example, it was reported that ten NYPD officers died by suicide. In 2021, the media reported an alarming suicide rate in San Antonio’s Police Department. Recently in the Chicago Police Department, three police officers died by suicide in a single week. It’s like a stage four illness that you just can’t ignore anymore. It’s forcing leadership and decision makers to figure out innovative ways to mitigate this serious risk to our personnel.

Stats source: “Law Enforcement,” NAMI

Another reason has to do with the way data was historically collected. All kinds of data points were being collected on police deaths, with the exception of suicide. It wasn’t until certain non-profit organizations, such as Blue Help, started looking into it and collecting those numbers that the severity of our mental health situation became more obvious.

Jessica: I noticed you tend to use the term “brain health,” as opposed to the more common “mental health.” Is there a reason for that?

Todd: Words have meaning. I want to speak to my audience in the most effective way possible. Police officers are Spartan warrior types, the kinds of people who overpower their bodies’ natural reaction to run from danger in order to run toward it. Unfortunately, the term “mental health” has been overused and stigmatized in pop culture to the point that it’s been turned into a joke that officers don’t want to be associated with.

I got the term “brain health” from listening to Kevin Hines speak at an event. Kevin Hines was suffering from mental illness when he attempted suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, and he survived. So, in his talk, he used the term “brain health” because he wanted to address the problem directly for what it is, which is a biological problem. This isn’t mental, he was basically saying, this is my brain, just like something can go wrong with my hand or my heart.

Our brain is a complex organ and sometimes it can get messed up. I consider “brain health” interchangeable with “mental health,” but from my experience using the former term resonates better with the population I’m trying to reach.

Jessica: Last year, you participated in a pilot produced by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offering the Overwatch Peer Support (OPS) program. This program provides first responders with access to peers outside of their own agency for mental health support, decreasing the concerns of confidentiality issues related to confiding in co-workers. How did the pilot go and what are your thoughts on this program?

Todd: To give you a little background, in 2019 I was sent to a scene along with my fellow officers that involved a dead 3-year-old child and the child’s parents who were in the most extreme agony I had ever seen. And there was nothing we could do about the situation, we were just spectators at that point. I was completely haunted by this scene and two days later when we had a meeting at the station about it, I just wasn’t willing to open up and be vulnerable with my salty coworkers about how I couldn’t sleep and I was drinking more beers than usual with this horrific scene just stuck in my head.

I knew I had to do something. I thought maybe I can find another officer outside my department to confide in. Maybe another officer in North Texas has access to mental health resources. I searched for it, but nothing existed. So, I decided to go out on a limb and visit NAMI North Texas. I had no PowerPoint, no fancy title to my name—just my idea for a regional peer support program.

Todd speaks alongside Chris Payne, LCSW, from NAMI about the program launch on FOX News (c. 2022)

I expected to be turned away, to be told that NAMI doesn’t get involved with law enforcement. Instead, the executive director at the time, Marsha Rodgers, thought it was a promising idea. We went on to have many conversations and we kept pushing forward until we were able to partner with the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute. In addition to their innovative work in brain health and their interest in the law enforcement community, the nonprofit had a great curriculum and was well-connected with politicians in Austin who could help us with funding.

When I had this idea in 2019, I never imagined that I would need this service again so soon. In December of last year, Lieutenant Chris Carker, my good friend since 2006, died by suicide. OPS peer support members immediately came to our police department to talk to us and provide guidance.

By then we also had a set-up in which an officer could meet up with an officer from another department 15 minutes or so from his house in street clothes over coffee and vent to someone who speaks his language, but isn’t going to be a colleague or boss he has to face at work the next day. He can just peel back some of that Spartan armor and allow himself to be a human being.

Todd, far left, supporting the first Overwatch Peer Support class (c. 2022)

Jessica: Clearly you knew how practical this program would be for other officers, based on your own experience. In addition to this program, are there any particular technologies that your department has used that you’ve found particularly beneficial for your mental health initiatives?

Todd: We recently partnered with Dr. Mark Powers, a PTSD researcher at Baylor Scott & White. Our department is part of his clinical study using a VR program to promote mindfulness that in turn promotes better sleep. Initially, Dr. Powers was using terms like “mindfulness” and “wellness,” but we told him hey, if you want all these tough, warrior-type guys to participate in this, we need to rebrand it as a “sleep study.”

So far, we have a lot of willing participants and the program is showing promising results. We know from experience that poor or disrupted sleep greatly exacerbates stress, so making quality sleep a normal part of an officer’s routine—just like fueling right and lifting weights—is a key part to managing overall health.

We’ve also partnered with Axon. They’re providing training videos and VR for officer wellness to our department at no cost. We use some of their videos to train recruits. They’ve also supported the Overwatch Peer Support program.

Lighthouse is another great company that has provided us with a wellness app tailored to our department, with an option to use a free version. By the way, keeping costs low is important for us to be able to use an app or program long term, since fighting every year for grant money can be a real barrier.

Jessica: What do you believe is the cause behind the mental health stigma among law enforcement officers and what can practically be done to combat this stigma? And I know you mentioned before that sometimes just altering the terminology of a product or program makes a big difference in officers being more receptive, but that doesn’t exactly get to the root of the problem.

Todd: I remember about 20 years ago when I was in the Garland Police Academy that one of the instructors walked in and asked us to raise our hands if we were married. About two-thirds of the class raised their hands. Then he joked well that’s great, guys, you’re all about to get divorced. The thing is, if you’re hanging with a group of police officers and someone mentions he’s onto his sixth marriage, no one bats an eye. That’s how bad it is.

Basically, when I was starting out, there was zero training on how to mitigate the psychological impact of all the trauma we were about to be exposed to as police officers. Nobody prepared us for seeing nightmare after nightmare, for having to show up on another human being’s worst day, and sometimes all you can do is be a spectator.

And that trauma doesn’t even include working nights and overtime and all kinds of odd hours that mess with your body chemistry. It doesn’t include the last-minute shifts that get thrown your way, forcing you to miss holidays and birthdays with your family. And what kind of mental preparation were we given for all this? Nothing.

Compound all this with the warrior mentality. Only one-percent of society has a tough enough exterior to do what we do and not break. So, anything to do with internal emotions is threatening to us. In our minds, emotions are connected to a weakness that could break us, when in reality it should be considered normal to have an emotional reaction to the things we’re exposed to. But if we’re not talking about this stuff from the beginning to the recruits sitting in the academy, it makes it very difficult to reach out for help.

Todd stands next to documentary filmmaker Conrad Weaver at an Overwatch Peer Support booth at a C.O.P.S. conference in Dallas, Texas. (c. 2022)

Note: Todd served as an associate producer on Conrad’s documentary, PTSD911, covering the mental health crisis in the first responder community. Learn more about Conrad’s eye-opening documentary here.

Policing has been around for over a hundred years, but only now are we waking up to the fact that our mental health situation is abysmal. We might be starting from zero, but at least we’re getting started and making mental health care more of a priority now.

Jessica: What are the most significant changes you've seen in your department since promoting mental health programming?

Todd: Back in 1992 in Garland, when officer Andy Bell died by suicide, nothing was said, nothing was done. Suicide was embarrassing, it was something you swept under the rug. We didn’t rush in and love his surviving family, because what are you supposed to say?

Fast forward to 2022 when we lost Lieutenant Chris to suicide. Our chief immediately sent out a sensitive internal message. He also posted about it on social media. The funeral for Chris was a respectful police funeral. We talked about what happened, we supported each other and we supported his family.

We now have assigned mental health liaisons in the police, such as myself. We are always looking for new resources to innovate our mental health programs. We have regular communications with mental health experts and non-profit organizations. Most importantly, we’re talking to our new recruits about mental health. We’re working hard to normalize conversations around mental health from day one.

In 2019, we formed the Law Enforcement Mental Health Alliance of North Texas. We have about 400 members and 40 agencies. I’ve learned so much through this alliance. I’d be nowhere right now without this community. We’re in this together, bouncing ideas off each other constantly and pushing forward for the sake of the common good.

Todd and his comrades from F1RST at an event for the Law Enforcement Mental Health Alliance of North Texas (c. 2020)

No matter your profession, you want your people showing up to work feeling rested, healthy, and happy. Why should it be any different for the police?

Jessica: Are there any other important lessons you want to share about your journey to establish better mental health resources for your police department?

Todd: I just want to point out that when I showed up at NAMI, I didn’t have a fancy title or fancy presentation; I just had a vision and the motivation to see that vision through. I knew what I was doing was practical and desperately needed, so even when I suffered some failures along the way I didn’t let failure bring me down. I just kept moving forward and doing what I knew was right.

I also never stop doing research. I’m always on the hunt for culturally competent resources that will enhance our mental health programming. We can’t just check the box on some employee assistance program and call it a day. I never stop networking and connecting with others who believe in the same cause. Sometimes a single conversation with the right person can expand your mission in ways you couldn’t imagine.

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About Jessica Lauren Walton: Jessica is a communications strategist, video producer, and writer in the U.S. defense industry. She has written articles on a range of security and mental health topics and conducted interviews with military leadership, psychologists, filmmakers, CIA officers, journalists, and more. Jessica recently completed her memoir about her experience as an American woman struggling with mental illness while trying to get into Israeli intelligence.

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