The Washington Post

Officials push to fight rise of suicide, mental health stigmas in customs agency

- Federal Insider JOE DAVIDSON

Amid much talk about telework, compensati­on and agency funding at last week’s National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) legislativ­e conference there was only an indirect mention of a deadly federal workplace issue. Suicide.

There were 15 suicides among Customs and Border Protection employees in 2022, the most since at least 2007, when the agency began tracking the deaths. That’s almost twice the number in 2020 and three times as many in 2014.

Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (Miss.), the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, spoke at NTEU’S opening session Tuesday and said he will introduce legislatio­n to facilitate mental health services, especially for CBP, a Department of Homeland Security component. Despite its name, NTEU covers employees in 34 agencies, including DHS, most of which have nothing to do with Treasury.

“We want to make sure that it’s not a badge of dishonor for you to get some help,” Thompson told union members, without saying “suicide.”

But in an interview after his speech and later by email, he made it plain.

“It is beyond tragic that CBP has seen a record number of officers and agents lost to suicide in recent years,” Thompson said. “We need a program at DHS that cannot only provide mental health support, developmen­t, and resources, but ensure that the workforce can access those resources without risking their careers.”

Federal employees already have mental health coverage through their workplace health insurance program, but “because of the stress of the work,” Thompson said “many of the agents at the ports of entry need an enhanced program.” Sen. Gary Peters (D-mich.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government­al Affairs Committee, is leading a companion bill in his chamber.

Workplace stress for Internal Revenue Service employees also was on NTEU’S agenda, at least implicitly, because of remarks by House Republican­s who recently said that IRS agents would “terrorize” Americans.

Thompson’s legislatio­n would establish a Law Enforcemen­t Mental Health and Wellness Program that requires the department to evaluate mental health services now available and recommend improvemen­ts. Importantl­y, DHS would be instructed to promote a culture that reduces the stigma too often associated with those services and prevent adverse employment actions against staffers seeking help, including automatic fitness for duty examinatio­ns.

NTEU President Tony Reardon praised Congress for providing $23 million in fiscal 2023 to address “the mental health crisis among the CBP workforce,” including through a peer-to-peer support program. “Our research has shown that one of the main reasons CBP employees don’t seek help is the fear that they will have to surrender their badge,” he said by email. “Instead, we are advocating for a culture change that encourages, rather than disincenti­vizes, employees coming forward and that seeking treatment is itself a step toward recovery.”

CBP knows it has a culture problem related to mental health assistance and says it is working to change it.

“We’re trying to do a lot of work to change our culture” so there is no negative stigma attached to mental health assistance, Benjamine “Carry” Huffman, CBP’S acting deputy commission­er, said in a joint interview with Kent Corso, a clinical psychologi­st who is also the agency’s suicidolog­ist and a special adviser to the commission­er. CBP now has 35 clinicians stationed around the country, with plans to increase that to 50 by year’s end, plus about 1,500 peer support officials and chaplains.

DHS is one of only two federal agencies with suicidolog­ists. The reasons for the increase in CBP suicides is not clear. “This is a highly complex human phenomenon that we are still trying to figure out,” he said. The triggers in CBP suicides are the same as in the general population, Corso explained, citing personal relationsh­ips, substance abuse, workplace difficulti­es and financial problems. “Most importantl­y, it’s typically a combinatio­n of factors that drive someone to the hopeless state, which leads them to ending their lives.”

Conference participan­ts also saw a video of Democrats and Republican­s speaking on issues important to NTEU members. Forty-five percent of those represente­d by the union are IRS staffers. Among the Republican comments were those from Reps. Michael Lawler (N.Y.) and Pat Fallon (Tex.) who demonized tax employees while criticizin­g a provision in last year’s Inflation Reduction Act that provides for the hiring of 87,000 agency staffers.

Lawler said they “are going to terrorize” hard-working taxpayers. Fallon claimed the IRS workers will “harass, stalk and otherwise terrorize law-abiding Americans.” Rep. Michelle Steel (R- Calif.) predicted employees of the “weaponized IRS” would “harass and spy on middle class and low-income families.”

Responding later by email, Doreen Greenwald, NTEU’S executive vice president, called those claims “a dangerous lie that puts IRS employees around the country on edge because we know too well how disinforma­tion about the government can provoke violence in this country. IRS employees should not have to fear being attacked just for doing their job, yet that thought unfortunat­ely crosses their mind every time they have to meet with a taxpayer.”

Fear of attacks on IRS employees is no idle concern. In 2010, a man who left a suicide note with grievances against the agency crashed a small plane into an Austin IRS office, killing himself and an employee. That December, The Washington Post, citing an agency watchdog, reported there were more than 1,200 cases of assaults and threats against IRS employees in the previous nine years, with over 200 conviction­s.

That was before Republican­s’ current language suggesting IRS agents would “terrorize” the nation.

“As a former revenue officer myself,” Greenwald said, “I know personally that this rhetoric is alarming to regular, hardworkin­g federal employees who are sick and tired of being unfairly maligned by politician­s who would rather lie about their service than respect it.”

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