Less than three weeks after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centers a year ago, two Columbia psychiatrists received an unexpected query. The New York City Police Department approached the doctors seeking help for its police officers to deal with the psychological impact of 9/11 and the more common trauma of shootings and motor vehicle accidents.
The NYPD's request was a welcome surprise because neither psychiatrist could recall the police department working extensively with an outside psychiatry group. The NYPD has mental health clinicians on staff but needed assistance to provide large-scale mental health services, says Dr. Frederic I. Kass, professor of clinical psychiatry in P&S and director of the collaboration from the Columbia side.
"The key to our plans was our promise to keep each police officer's information confidential," Dr. Kass says. "We've learned that the police, once they get over the stigma of psychiatric treatment, are good patients who usually respond well to clinical interventions."
The doctors also agreed not to speak to the press for the first six months and to forgo any research opportunities that might arise in order to focus on aiding the police.
Dr. Kass and his colleague Dr. Ellen Stevenson, associate clinical professor of psychiatry in P&S and clinical director of psychiatry at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, set up three programs: stress management seminars, a telephone hotline staffed by psychiatrists, and training sessions for the core group of about 20 psychiatrists who volunteered to treat the police officers.
Without ever having to give their last names, officers have been able to get answers to questions on the hotline and even be referred to a psychiatrist for treatment.
So far, about 15,000 of the approximately 40,000 NYPD police officers have attended stress management seminars, which are held away from precinct houses in places such as community centers, churches, and schools. About 300 officers have met with psychiatrists for counseling sessions. One of the major issues for the police officers was being away from their families because they were working extremely long hours because of imposed overtime. Drs. Kass and Stevenson are continuing to develop special programs such as anger management and relaxation sessions for the NYPD, which has made a three- to five-year commitment to the program.
The physicians will discuss the clinical lessons from the NYPD collaboration at a free Sept. 21 conference organized by Dr. Kass at the Regent Wall Street hotel. The event, part of Columbia's Continuing Medical Education program, is open to the public and will examine access to treatment and the importance of peer support, as well as stress disorders, alcoholism, risk of suicide, family issues, and reaction of police officers to the 9/11 anniversary. The psychiatrists are not sure what to expect from the anniversary, but are prepared to meet any increase in demand for psychiatric services.
The doctors believe their work with the NYPD could serve as a model for collaborations between police departments elsewhere and the medical community. Drs. Kass and Stevenson are collaborating with the Philadelphia Police Department and have plans to establish a Columbia center to study psychiatric issues in law enforcement.
"Our experience shows that academic medical centers should have a role in providing support to police officers," Dr. Kass says. "Certainly law enforcement is even more important to society with the threat of terrorismwhich has made police officers' jobs more stressful."
For more information, contact Dr. Frederic Kass, professor of clinical psychiatry, at (212) 305-2317 or firstname.lastname@example.org.