GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Grand Rapids Police Chief says law enforcement has experienced a “culture shift” toward better addressing officers’ mental health.

September is National Suicide Prevention Month. Three former GRPD officers have died by suicide in the time since Police Chief Eric Winstrom took over the department in March 2022.

One of the officers had retired in the last five years.

Thirty-two current or former law enforcement officers died by suicide nationwide last year, according to the FBI. Winstrom, a former commander for the Chicago Police Department, has dealt with loss firsthand.

“I lost two friends there who died by suicide,” Winstrom said. “The numbers as compared to the rest of the nation really are much, much higher statistically for police officers.”

Winstrom started out as an officer 23 years ago. He recalled law enforcement’s approach to mental health back then as officers needing to “just deal with it.”

“You gotta be tough, gotta have thick skin,” Winstrom described the old culture. “A lot of guys I knew turned to alcohol to deal with their problems.”

“Especially when you’re dealing with things like crimes against children, it can really eat away at you,” Winstrom continued.

Winstrom said there’s less stigma now — it’s not only OK but encouraged for officers to talk about their mental health.

“I’ve expressed to my officers I’ve gone through therapy myself,” Winstrom said. “It’s something I wouldn’t mention at all 20 years ago.”

“Now, I think we’re in a place where the officers can walk down the hall here and say, ‘I’m gonna see Julie,’” Winstrom continued. “No one’s gonna look down on them. If anything, they’re gonna celebrate that and say it’s good you’re taking care of yourself.”

Julie Holmes-Markowski works at the police department as GRPD’s licensed social worker. The position was created four years ago, making GRPD among the first departments to have a dedicated clinician in house.

“GR’s actually super progressive in this,” she said. “There are few departments that do anything like this. Often police departments are doing a better job about contracting with clinicians, but the fact GR has one on site is pretty cool.”

Holmes-Markowski has experience in law enforcement as a former probation officer. She has also worked in jails and prisons, talking with deputies one-on-one.

Today, she manages a private practice while working part-time for GRPD, ready to help officers with whatever they need.

“Just like in any field, we sometimes need a little bit of help,” she said. “It’s helpful to have somebody on site and somebody that is familiar and comfortable and easy to talk to.”

She’s not only there for police after tough 911 calls but also to help with their personal lives.

“In general, it’s more of anxiety, depression, maybe family stuff going on, relationship issues,” she said. “Sometimes they just need to dialog about it and come up with a plan moving forward.”

The department also has a peer support team that meets one-on-one with officers after traumatic calls. If officers need continuing care, she may refer them to another therapist that she has vetted in the community. She says the fact she’s in house, right down the hall from the officers, makes it easy to reach out.

“I hope we see way more of me in different departments,” she said. “I think every department needs someone in this capacity.”

Holmes-Markowski agreed that law enforcement has made strides toward acknowledging and better addressing mental health.

“For a long time, the idea was just that we suck it up and we keep doing our job,” she said. “But we’re realizing now what these men and women go through every day.”

Winstrom said the clinical social worker position, created before his tenure as police chief, shows Grand Rapids is “very forward-thinking” by putting GRPD at the “forefront of officer wellness.”

“A lot of times people look at police officers and see us a uniform,” Winstrom said. “It’s important to remember you’re talking about human beings. A lot of us have kids. Everybody goes through a lot of things you might not hear about.”