A new initiative in West St. Paul requires police officers to schedule an annual wellness check-in with a therapist, even if there's nothing troubling them.

Police officers' jobs are demanding, even traumatic, but cops often resist seeking help when they're struggling in an effort to avoid appearing weak, said Andy Skoogman, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association.

"From a culture standpoint, law enforcement has been reluctant in the past to open up to this issue," Skoogman said. "I think that is changing."

West St. Paul's Wellness Initiative, which kicked off this spring, aims to address some of the barriers that keep law enforcement officers from seeing counselors, from scheduling challenges to the stigma of seeking psychological help.

The first requirement, said Lt. Matt Swenke of the West St. Paul Police Department, was to find a counseling service whose employees understood the idiosyncrasies of police work. The department chose Ellie Family Services, a company where many employees are trained in counseling law enforcement employees, because several officers were already going there.

"They understand some of how cops react, how they see the world, some of the crazy nuances that officers have," said Swenke, who is in charge of the program.

To put officers at ease, the visits aren't just confidential — they involve no note-taking or written records. Officers can discuss whatever they want during the one-hour session, said Erin Pash, co-owner of Ellie Family Services, from parenting issues to work-life balance. Sometimes counselors spend time debunking myths about therapy, she said, or explaining how to set up regular visits with a counselor.

"We make sure they know they're not being diagnosed," said Pash, who designed the program. "One of [officers'] biggest fears is, 'Is this going to be used against me in a civil suit?' "

Police officers have the same issues as anyone else, but their job is stressful, and their training can make it hard to effectively deal with that pressure, Pash said.

"If you have to turn your emotions off … you can imagine how that impacts them personally," she said.

Making the visits mandatory helps, Pash said, because seeing a counselor becomes a shared experience officers can discuss with one another.

The effort has been "overwhelmingly positive," Pash said, adding that she believes that 100% of West St. Paul's 32 sworn officers met the July 31 deadline to see a therapist, but she doesn't have the totals yet.

Many have even made additional appointments with counselors at Ellie, Pash and Swenke said.

"I've got three people, off the top of my head, that have said … 'Hey, this is not just going to make me a better police officer, this is going to make me a better person,' " Swenke said.

In 2007, a robbery in West St. Paul turned into a hostage situation for one of the department's officers. Though that officer lived through the experience, he never received any counseling to help him cope with it, Swenke said.

"Many of us stood around and saw him change, but none of us did anything," Swenke said.

Department leaders, haunted by their inaction, vowed to do things differently in the next crisis. When Mendota Heights police officer Scott Patrick was shot in West St. Paul five years ago, anyone involved in the incident had to see a counselor, Swenke said.

The Wellness Initiative is another step to encourage officers to pay attention to their own mental health, Swenke said.

He hopes to find the funding to require two wellness checks each year, he said.

West St. Paul is also working out the details of a contract with Ellie to ensure counselors are immediately available and on-site after any departmental crisis, he said.

Several departments are experimenting with programs like the one in West St. Paul.

The Plymouth Police Department has led the way in mental health efforts and has an in-house psychologist. Blaine's program is similar to West St. Paul's, and Farmington is looking into something much like it, Swenke said.

When it comes to mental health awareness, the tide is changing in law enforcement. More leaders in the field are "finally seeing the light" and officers are, too, Skoogman said.

"I think we're at the beginning of a positive trend … for the profession," Skoogman said.

Erin Adler • 612-673-1781