TAMPA, Fla. — Working in law enforcement can be dangerous, stressful and sometimes deadly. Unfortunately, those risk factors can significantly affect an officer's mental health.
Since 2017, when Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister took office, he's made mental health for deputies a top priority. During that time, deputies have committed murder-suicides, died in the line of duty or lost their brothers and sisters in blue to COVID-19.
"There's that stigma that we have to be the tough, big bad guys and not let stuff affect us," Chief Deputy Donna Lusczynski said. "And over time, that only harms us worse because it builds up internally."
Lusczynski started her career at HCSO in 1991, first in patrol, then working her way up through narcotics, the vice unit and overseeing homicide. So, Lusczynski has seen a lot. And, there are calls that many deputies will never unsee.
"We talk to our supervisors to do that to watch their employees daily. Because sometimes it could be a horrible call, you go to a death scene, a child abuse, sexual battery, those are disturbing," Lusczynski said. "So that could disturb that deputy for the shift. So we ask them, talk to them if they need to take time if they need to leave, do that."
The sheriff's office offers a range of services, including an emotional support dog named Mason and a full-time psychologist.
"We've had one since 2020, and because of the confidentiality, we don't get into the weeds about who goes and what they say. But, we know her schedule is packed," Lusczynski said.
When tragedy strikes, it sends a ripple effect throughout the entire department. In January, beloved deputy Abigail Bieber was shot and killed during an apparent murder-suicide. The gunman was her boyfriend, a detective with Hillsborough County.
"Well, you have your immediate shock and just pure devastation in that case," Lusczynski said.
The sheriff's office believes all the programs have a positive impact.
Currently, the department is running an awareness campaign called "So What, There's an Elephant in the Room."
For that campaign, the sheriff's office says employees are encouraged to submit pictures with a stuffed elephant to start the conversation about mental health and the stigma of talking about mental health (the "elephant in the room").
And in 2019, the department established a suicide prevention program in honor of Sgt. Jon Black, who died of cancer but was committed to suicide prevention among law enforcement.
"And we've had brave employees come forward and say, 'I've met with Dr. "A," and she has helped me, and I recommend anybody else to go through it.' So that's powerful when we have one of our employees say that they've received help from our services."