Sgt. Tom Grutzius, a patrol sergeant assigned to Joliet’s central district, was a bit leery about opening up to people early on about the impact of trauma experienced while on the job.
His thoughts about the way police officers often deal with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are nothing new.
“It’s just a stigma,” Grutzius said. “If you seek help, somehow you’re weak, and that’s not the case. Reaching out for help is one of the most courageous things you can do.”
At a recent meeting of the Joliet Public Safety Committee, city officials took time to open up a discussion on PTSD for first responders.
Grutzius, who has Post-Traumatic Stress Injury, said he is appreciative knowing the city is trying to move the dialogue forward.
PTSI is a term commonly used by those in the police psychological community to describe what is known in the medical field as PTSD.
Grutzius, a 24-year veteran of the Joliet Police Department, said he developed PTSI in the fall of 2017. He was working on a Reed Street murder-suicide case involving twin girls and their mother.
“I took that hard because I knew what it was like to grow up as a twin — all the fun we had, the instant friends we had,” he said. “I knew that those girls were robbed of that.”
Grutzius said the next few months were challenging because death investigations continued to pile up, triggering symptoms of PTSI such as chest and stomach tightening and sleep disturbances.
“Sirens — that’s what really got to me,” he said. “What I was grateful for is that I was in therapy to process as it was happening.”
PTSD and its impact on first responders in fire and police departments is not exclusive to Joliet. Also, like many mental health conditions, the cause, symptoms and treatment vary from one individual to the next.
Grutzuis said PTSI is something first responders can learn to cope with thanks, in part, to support provided by the police department and resources in the community.
Grutzius is one of 13 police officers and nine civilians heading up a Peer Assistant Team, a program that is set up to help first responders deal with personal life issues and other struggles relevant to working for the city.
The police department’s Peer Assistant Team is coordinated by police social worker Mardi Wunderlich. The program will be changing as the department looks to improve it.
“Although peer systems have been around, only recently have they taken off in Illinois,” Wunderlich said.
Members of the team complete four trainings per year to address topics that affect both on-duty and retired officers.
Assistance is provided in the areas of critical stress debriefing, family issues, substance abuse, mental health and how to adjust to civilian life. Police can seek assistance anonymously.
Grutzius said he feels police officers, especially when they approach him informally, are open to having a Peer Assistant Team.
“They know it’s available,” he said. “We’re going to try to get the word out more frequently that we’re here.”
“Many people are very open to it and seek out the help of their peer assistant, but officers are more guarded,” she said. “It’s a work in progress.”