HPD wellness check-in program reduces stigma, draws outside interest
BY HEATHER WRIGHT
Hyattsville Police Chief Jarod J. Towers said the department’s 18-month-old mental wellness check-in program has notably reduced the stigma about therapy that previously kept some employees from seeking support.
Before the program started, in December 2021, if Towers or any of his command staff asked an officer experiencing a crisis if they wanted to talk to someone, “the answer was always ‘I’m OK,’ and ‘No, I don’t want to talk to anybody,’” Towers said in a phone interview.
Since the program’s implementation, employees known to have experienced a traumatic event have consistently agreed to talk to one of the program’s clinicians. “The answer in every circumstance has been ‘yes,’” Towers said. “And that is completely different from what it was like in the past before this program.”
For fiscal year 2022, the city council budgeted $50,000 to establish the Hyattsville Police Department (HPD) Mental Wellness Check-in Program. The program requires all HPD officers and dispatchers to meet quarterly in 50-minute, one-on-one virtual sessions with licensed mental health clinicians who have experience working with first responders.
A $118,800 federal law enforcement grant extended the program by two years and expanded it to include Brentwood Police Department employees and monthly therapy sessions for interested officers, dispatchers and administrative staff from both municipalities. According to Hyattsville Mental Health Programs Manager Adrienne Augustus, seven participants took advantage of additional counseling sessions through the program during its first year.
Augustus has been presenting first-year findings of the mental wellness check-in initiative at conferences around the country, including a police conference in Anaheim, Calif., and the National Alliance on Mental Illness conference, or NAMIcon, in Minneapolis.
According to Augustus’ presentation, of the 20 program participants who completed all four post-session surveys, about three-quarters said their sessions were productive and that they felt connected to, and understood by, their clinicians.
One respondent said, “I like the program. I think that these check-ins are a helpful way to vent about some things that maybe have been kept inside. It’s a safe space within work, and [I] think it’s beneficial.” Another respondent suggested that the check-in program be made available to officers’ family members, too.
Augustus and Towers, who have both experienced private therapy, as well, said they were surprised and impressed by the quality of, and quick connection to, their clinician. “I came out [of the first session] being really impressed,” Towers said.
On the flip side, some respondents said that the program shouldn’t be mandatory. One respondent noted, “I dislike the fact that I have to attend them when I already have a provider. It is an absolute waste of my time.”
Both Augustus and Towers said that they were open to reducing the number of mandatory sessions. In an email, Augustus said, “Based on participant feedback and the fact that participants can see their clinicians at any time, for free with the grant funds, I have recommended that we scale back the program to three times a year.”
According to Augustus, several factors contribute to the success of the HPD check-in program: Sessions are mandatory; they occur during the work day; the program is separate from the human resources department (the HPD program works in partnership with a professor and interns from the University of Maryland School of Public Health to maintain a wall of confidentiality); and clinicians have experience working with first responders.
A number of law enforcement agencies and partnering mental health providers have expressed interest in the check-in program, including Arizona State University and a District-based organization that partners with multiple police departments, according to Augustus. She is currently working on a report about the program that she said can serve as a how-to manual for others interested in establishing a check-in program and adapting it to their needs.
Both Towers and Augustus commented on how the program supports the community as well as the police department.
When officers are mentally fit, Towers said, “your officers are more likely to build bridges and do what you want them to do out in the community: build relationships, get to know people, understand the community, understand their community’s problems.”
Although the grant currently funding the program expires at the end of August, Augustus said she expects that the city will receive an extension on the funds they have not yet used. “The federal grant managers absolutely love what we’re doing,” she noted, “to the point that they’ve invited me to speak about it at a police conference in September.”
Hyattsville has also received a federal community policing grant to fund a mobile crisis intervention program and is seeking applicants for positions with the program. The positions are posted on the city’s employment website, hyattsville.org/Jobs.aspx, and Augustus said the city has begun the interview process.