SOUTHINGTON — When East Hartford police officer Paul Buchanan tragically took his own life in 2013 after a 24-year career with the department, he left behind a final wish to his family.
“...make my death an issue so that you can help other people that are like me.”
The note resonated with his wife Trish, who spearheaded an initiative to provide support for first responders struggling with mental health issues and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It was her work that caught the eye of Southington police Sgt. Jeffrey Ward, whose recent volunteer work providing peer support among police officers and first responders earned him the Officer Paul Buchanan Memorial Peer Support Award last Friday.
“The Buchanans are the ones that inspired me to begin my mission for suicide prevention among first responders and police,” Ward said.
After seeing Trish Buchanan’s initiative, called Believe 208 (for her late husband’s badge number), Ward underwent peer support training in 2016 and 2017.
“I knew it was something I had to do.” Ward said.
In order to put his ideas into motion, Ward needed the support of the Southington Police Department administration. He put together a presentation based on everything he learned in training, and pitched his ideas.
“We really couldn’t afford not to have this,” Southington Deputy Police Chief William Palmieri said. “Your average police officer probably sees more tragedy in a year than the average person does in a lifetime. ...back in the day, we were supposed to be like stones. But we hurt, we cry, we have feelings. It’s a shame that we need this, but it’s as important as any other program in our department.”
Ward put together a team of seven department members, with Ward serving as the coordinator. Together, the group holds “diffusings” after a critical incident to let the officer “vent.” The peer support team is also part of the Critical Incident Stress Management team based in Southington, which is learning how to conduct a Critical Incident Stress Briefing. There’s no note taking, or record of any briefings or diffusings.
“It’s imperative to remain confidential,” Ward said. “It’s important that it’s done correctly, because you’re dealing with people’s feelings and emotions. The whole foundation is built on honesty and confidentiality.”
Officers and other first responders can find comfort in working to relieve stress with colleagues.
“The fact that it’s police officers and first responders that make up the program is what makes it valuable,” Southington police Lt. Stephen Elliott said. “If I’m going through something and talk to (Ward) about it, he’s probably been through something similar.”
Ward is also part of a regional team based in Hartford that responds to other municipalities. Ward said the most fulfilling part of his volunteer work is seeing it spread beyond Southington.
“Getting the word out is so important,” Ward said. “I see us making a difference...every little bit of help matters.”