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Helping the helpers: Fargo agencies using new tool to prevent law enforcement suicide

FARGO — A tool designed to look for signs of stress and depression is now being used by local law enforcement agencies to try to save the lives of those who protect the community.

The Fargo Police Department and Cass County Sheriff's Office are using an online interactive screening tool through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in an effort to prevent police officers from dying by suicide.

The screening tool, called Interactive Screening Program (ISP), is a questionnaire that addresses risk factors for suicide, stress, depression and other mental health conditions, said Sherri Hashbarger, spokesperson for The Village Family Service Center.

This step to stop suicide comes four years after the death of Fargo police officer Jeff Skuza, who died by suicide by shooting himself with his own handgun.

Police officers take care of others in the community, but they often forget to take care of themselves, according to Timothy Briggeman, public information officer with Cass County Sheriff's Office.

Both Briggeman and Jessica Schindeldecker, public information officer with Fargo Police Department, said the ISP is not a mandatory step for police officers but is encouraged. The questionnaire is taken anonymously, Briggeman said, and mandating it would result in officers losing that anonymity.

"Anonymity is helpful in law enforcement where officers might be hesitant to ask for help," Hashbarger said.

Once the questionnaire is completed, it's sent to The Village through the Employee Assistance Program, Hashbarger said. Counselors then review the answers to determine if an officer should consider seeking help.

The questionnaire screens for depression, suicidal ideation and attempts, Hashbarger said. It also looks for problems related to depression such as anger, anxiety, alcohol and drug abuse and eating disorder symptoms, she said.

Briggeman and Schindeldecker said both agencies have had Peer Assistance Crisis teams, which are teams of officers trained to help other officers deal with traumatic situations.

But Briggeman said the ISP provided through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention brings an outside organization to help directly with mental health and connect officers with counseling.

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