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New Wellness Center: Stress & Substance Abuse Therapy For Cops Only

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An innovative medical treatment facility, exclusively for LEOs burdened by substance abuse, stress overload, marital problems, or other wellness-threatening issues, is scheduled to open within the next few months, not far from the Force Science Training headquarters in a Chicago suburb.

Dubbed St. Michael’s House, after the archangel patron of warriors, the special, nondenominational facility will occupy the entire floor of a private medical center and offer both residential and out-patient services for officers and their families.

The concept originated with the Des Plaines (IL) Police Dept., but the facility will be open to LEOs from any location, according to Des Plaines Chief William Kushner.

The facility is currently being renovated to create a “welcoming, non-institutional atmosphere” and is expected to be functional by the end of the summer, Kushner told Force Science News. The host medical center will be publicly identified at that time.

HORROR STORY MOTIVATOR

The hellish experiences of an officer on another suburban department planted the seeds for creating the facility.

A few years ago, that officer was assigned to deal with the media after his agency became the focus of international attention during an extremely high-profile murder investigation. Working long hours on little sleep and under intense and unrelenting pressure from his department and reporters, the officer eventually broke down to the point of contemplating suicide.

Sent for psychiatric treatment, he then lost his firearms privileges and, consequently, his job. Unemployed and with a wife and two small children, he also lost his house. And to his shock, he lost the support of his former fellow officers—even close friends—who, for the most part, treated him as a pariah.

“In short,” says Victoria Poklop, a victim-assistance counselor with 20 years on Des Plaines PD, “he lost everything.”

After reading about his ordeal, Poklop tracked him down where he’d found a job out of state with the help of relatives, working corporate security for a department store chain. In his spare time, “he was educating cops on wellness issues,” she recalls.

They talked for hours, brainstorming ideas. “He was very inspirational,” Poklop says. “But what happened to him should never happen to any officer.”

Back home, with the help of Sgt. John Rice of the Des Plaines investigations division and the enthusiastic support of her then boss, Cmdr. Randy Akin, and Chief Kushner, she set about fashioning an impressive in-house wellness/mental health program, including an active peer-support team and a network of vetted professional therapists attuned to the nuances of working productively with LEOs.

The next logical step seemed to be to establish a full-fledged treatment facility where officers could seek help for toxic stress, alcohol or drug abuse, marital problems, and other therapy issues with privacy from the civilian world.

PROTECTIVE ATMOSPHERE

Across nearly four decades of policing, Kushner has more than once encountered what he considers a fatal flaw in many substance abuse programs: “Cops in rehab sometimes find themselves in groups with people they’ve pinched for selling drugs.” Obviously not the most conducive atmosphere for corrective self-disclosure and renewal.

Yet, the need is great; he estimates that some 15% of officers have a substance abuse issue. So in finding a wellness facility that would include abuse treatment, law enforcement exclusivity became a paramount concern. “In effect,” Kushner says, “we wanted a safety zone for cops.”

With the backing of nearly 30 other police administrators Kushner had contacted, he and Poklop earlier this year approached a major, multi-story medical center in Des Plaines that operates a successful rehab program—and where the marketing director is a former officer. They asked if perhaps some limited space could be set aside to accommodate a law enforcement-only clientele.

The center’s CEO, whose family tree also includes a law enforcement branch, countered by offering an entire floor.

UNIQUE MIX

In collaboration with the center, Kushner, Poklop, and Rice have worked out what they believe is a unique holistic menu of services and a nurturing setting “where cops can feel comfortable with other cops,” in the chief’s words.

When the current renovation is complete, the special floor—“St. Michael’s House”—will feature 20 spacious residential rooms, a family visitation area, meeting space, and out-patient consultation and treatment offices, plus access to workout equipment.

Services will include psychological counseling, substance abuse rehabilitation and recovery coaching, stress and trauma treatment, marriage counseling, massage therapy, nutrition guidance, brain mapping, Reiki healing, pet therapy, medication, meditation, physical therapy, mindfulness training, and other wellness approaches, all tailored specifically to law enforcement.

Any LEO or family member is eligible to participate. Details are being worked out so that insurance plans will be universally accepted. Record-keeping will be minimal, and the floor will not operate as a locked facility. Admission or out-patient visits will not jeopardize an officer’s professional firearms status, Kushner says—“and that is hugely important.”

“A crisis usually hits an officer at a most inappropriate time,” Poklop says. “We want to have a system in place that allows an officer to transition seamlessly into a helpful response.”

MODEL PROGRAM

Initial response to word of the new facility has been strongly positive, even from agencies with a mere handful of officers. “People tend to think of big departments with high call loads as being stressful,” Kushner says, “but stressors really are consistent across the board in law enforcement. And we in policing have turned a blind eye to some of these stress-related problems for decades.”

Indeed, he can remember an era early in his career when an officer with an alcohol problem might show up for work drunk. “His gun would be secured and he’d be put in a cell to sleep it off.”

He’s hopeful that the Des Plaines facility will serve as a model for a far better approach that’s emulated nationwide.

We’ll report more details when St. Michael’s House opens officially. In the meantime, for more information or for help with a current emergency, contact Victoria Poklop at: vpoklop@desplaines.org or Chief Kushner at: bkushner@desplaines.org.

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