Angela Martilik, a PhD in Forensic Psychology student and 2017 Scholar of Change, aims to destigmatize mental health one police department at a time

Angela Martalik
Angela Martilik

Counselors and psychologists are often used as expert witnesses in the court of law. Angela Martilik, MA, is a licensed professional counselor in Texas with more than a decade of experience counseling individuals, couples, and families. She is also an advanced mediator in her state and is trained in collaborative law. At her first deposition as an expert witness, the opposing attorney did what attorneys sometimes need to do: Try to invalidate the witness.

“Opposing counsel was relentless and tried to scare me off because I didn’t have a doctoral degree,” recounts Martilik, now a PhD in Forensic Psychology student and 2017 Scholar of Change. “Despite the terrible experience, it was the fire I needed to go and earn my PhD.”

Now, Martilik is using her Walden education to make a difference inside and outside of the courtroom. “I took Dr. James Herndon’s police psychology course at Walden and it really opened my eyes to police culture,” she says. “The numbers are staggering: One police officer commits suicide every 81 hours. And for every officer who does, there are nearly 1,000 other officers battling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) while continuing to work.”

There are inherent risks in law enforcement. “There are traumatic events that happen every day, but many officers go through their career without big incidents,” says Martilik. “There’s also a hidden and prolonged ‘what if’ concern that can create PTSD. For example, every time they pull someone over in their car they wonder if this will be the person who pulls a gun on them. Their partners at home are also wondering the same thing each time they leave for work. This mentality takes a toll on relationships and can lead to divorce as well as addiction.”

Through her private practice, Martilik meets with law enforcement officers on occasion but knows there are many more struggling behind the scenes. “They don’t want the stigma of needing help so they don’t often seek mental health services,” she explains. “In the event they do seek counseling, they might not use their insurance because they don’t want anyone else to know. While police in different regions such as New York may be more receptive and accept that mental health is accessible, good, and helpful, down here in Texas, they pull themselves up by their bootstraps and keep on going.”

To help this reluctant population, Martilik is working with Mark Young, a 40-year veteran and retired deputy chief of police for Farmers Branch, Texas, to meet with local police departments—any that are open to listening to her—to offer information and resources. “They need to know that suicide is not the answer and there are other options,” she says. “Departments need to learn how to identify PTSD, and officers who self-recognize should know where they can go if they don’t want in-house counsel, including crisis centers and experienced counselors familiar with police culture and addictions.”

As Martilik and Young make their way around Texas, she’s also working on her dissertation focusing on formerly incarcerated women who have successfully lived in their community for at least 3 years. “I know it won’t be easy to transform police attitudes toward mental health, but that’s why it was important for me to help shine a light on a critical problem that needs to be addressed in communities around the country,” she says. Martilik chose to donate her Scholar of Change award to the Farmers Branch Police Officer Association, which works to take care of officers’ well-being.

—Jen Raider

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