Saratoga County Sheriff’s deputy tells conference-goers to maintain mental wellness

Saratoga County Sheriff's Deputy Zach Cicardi, the school resource officer for Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake, discussed the importance of officers taking care of their mental health during the inaugural Committee on Policing and Safeguarding's School Safety Training Conference in Saratoga Springs, on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022.
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Saratoga County Sheriff's Deputy Zach Cicardi, the school resource officer for Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake, discussed the importance of officers taking care of their mental health during the inaugural Committee on Policing and Safeguarding's School Safety Training Conference in Saratoga Springs, on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022.

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Saratoga County Sheriff’s Deputy Zach Cicardi told a roomful of cops he hadn’t considered he might carry trauma from the job — until a year or two after he’d responded to a deadly plane crash.
Cicardi said he was eating ice cream at a car show near an airport with his wife and kids when he saw the shadow of a similar type of plane, a Cessna, landing nearby.
Then unbeknownst to Cicardi, he had post-traumatic stress disorder from responding to the 2014 plane wreck in Northumberland that left two people dead.
Now in his fourth year as Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake’s school resource officer, Cicardi told the cautionary tale during the three-day Committee on Policing and Safeguarding Schools’ inaugural School Safety Training Conference at the Saratoga Casino Hotel on Jefferson Street. It ended Wednesday.
Cicardi spoke about the importance of officers maintaining their mental well-being, because problems can crop up immediately, or in his case, years later.
Billed in conference literature as having “a passion like no other for helping his brothers and sisters in blue,” Cicardi also touched on mental health and positive ways to cope with job stress.
The deputy said everybody responds to traumatic experiences in their own unique ways. For instance, an officer who’s also a parent might envision his own child when responding to a child abuse call, while an officer who’s not a parent might not personalize it as much.
Events involving children can “forever haunt” an officer, Cicardi said.

“You always remember the names, their faces,” he said. “To the day you die, you can go back and relive those events.”

Personally threatening incidents such as “being in a physical altercation with somebody twice your size,” along with more routine job stressors that can weigh on families such as working midnight or swing shifts and holidays, or missing a kid’s birthday or Christmas can take a toll, Cicardi said.

Those experiences might manifest in an officer being angry or suffering insomnia, anxiety, nightmares, or a loss of appetite.

“I’d be willing to bet, just looking out here, there’s a large percentage of those who have PTSD” that is either diagnosed or undiagnosed, he told the assembled officers.

“The years and years of cumulative stress add up,” Cicardi said. “We can fix ourselves. But we are broken.”

The panic attack from the imagined plane crash made him feel like he was going to die, he said.

Moreover, the deputy said he doesn’t like to drive on Middle Grove Road in Greenfield because it makes him revisit a fatal crash to which he was the first to respond.

PTSD that’s left untreated can result in problems for years, said Cicardi, who admitted that, despite his seemingly “perfect life” with a longtime wife and two beautiful daughters, and not having to worry about money, he’s had suicidal thoughts tied to being tired.

“When you’re exhausted to your core, the thought of like eternal rest doesn’t sound so bad,” he said, even describing the beautiful spot in the woods he had picked as the setting.

But Cicardi said he got help, and he spoke of the importance of positive coping strategies for officers. He said he shelters his wife from all the gory details of the emergencies to which he’s responded.

But in the same way that officers get annual physicals, he said it’s important to find somebody on which to “unload” those experiences at least once a year.

Likewise, officers shouldn’t be afraid to call their employee assistance program. The confidential, peer counseling for mental health and substance abuse issues from “tried and true professionals” can be a huge thing for officers because, if the counselor isn’t understanding, it can be hard to get the officer to open up.

“If they talk to someone who doesn’t understand police, you’ll forever gonna lose that cop,” he said.

Pacing up and down the aisle, Cicardi walked attendees through the program and how its peer-led counseling is supposed to work for officers, their families and coworkers.
EAPs make sure the counseling is provided by people who officers know personally, have their interests in mind, and are “true blue” and can be trusted, he said.
It’s important for officers to receive counseling from peers because a social worker who doesn’t understand police might refer a depressed officer to the state, which could lead to the possible seizure of his or her firearm.
That overreaction might make the officer’s depression even worse, Cicardi suggested.

“You try to actually get some help for yourself and then find out, ‘By the way, we’re taking your firearms, you can’t really have a job anymore,’ because you went for help,” he said.

While most cops tend to hang out together early in their careers, Cicardi said he found it helpful to have a social life outside of law enforcement.

He urged officers to find pastimes such as volunteering, coaching, along with taking up hobbies and attending church. This is a way to stay grounded and see the world how others view it, and not from an officer’s sometimes jaded perspective.

He also encouraged the officers to decrease their consumption of alcohol.

Contact reporter Brian Lee at [email protected] or 518-419-9766.

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