With 22 years in law enforcement and eight as a detective, Kary Gregson has seen a lot. 

She’s come face-to-face with some of our community’s darkest moments and spent days pouring over the details of horrific cases. Like many police officers, she loves her job, but it’s taken a toll.

“Being a detective is what I love doing the most, but it’s a really, really hard job,” she says. 

“You’re always on call. You’re glued to this phone, waiting for it to ring. And you know that when it does, it’s going to be the worst thing that’s happened to somebody.”

For much of her career, Kary was a single mom, raising a son. When he was young, she served as the lead detective on the child abuse unit, taking the lead on gut-wrenching cases among her other assignments. She describes seeing the weight of her work impact her own home, as she felt an urgency to protect her son from the scenarios she came across.

Kary Gregson leaning against a wall

“I've seen things that give me nightmares. A lot of times in the victims, you see your own kids or even yourself, and that takes its toll,” she says. 

She experienced firsthand the desperate need for mental health support for law enforcement and recognized the huge gaps in her own experience. Especially early in her career, there weren’t debriefs after traumatic calls; there wasn’t a therapist on staff. There was no time to cry or process what happened. 

“I had experienced some really, really terrible things in my career. I was just told to get back to work. Had we been able to really talk about it, I might not have had that time in my life where I really struggled with nightmares and fear of the next thing like that happening again.”

While agencies like the Tigard Police are investing more in mental health training and support for police officers, there’s more work to be done. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that people who work in law enforcement suffer much higher rates of depression, PTSD and other anxiety-related mental health conditions. And each year, more police die from suicide than in the line of duty. 

“You have to learn how to feel,” Kary says. “That's the hardest part for first responders, I think – you can compartmentalize things so much and stop feeling and that can lead to a lot of destructive behaviors.”

For a while Kary took a step back from her role as a detective. She trained new officers, developed an elder abuse investigation program, and gave prevention presentations to seniors in the community. But it wasn’t long before her heart pulled her back to detective work.

This time, though, she literally had to take her work home. COVID hit, and her job went remote.

“Something changed in me. Having these cases in my home really affected me. I didn't realize how much it had until I had to stare at them all day and all night.”

As she started looking ahead to her options for retiring from law enforcement, Kary decided to go back to school for her bachelor’s degree. It was something she had always wanted to accomplish, and there was no question what she would study. She enrolled in George Fox’s accelerated online psychology and mental health studies program. Right off the bat, she was able to earn 30 credits for her experience.

“I just really felt lifted and kind of like this hand is moving me forward and guiding me and saying ‘this is the way,’” she remembers. 

Kary Gregson in parking lot

Partway through the program, an opportunity came up to join the Mental Health Response Team for her agency, and she immediately applied. Now, she works alongside a mental health clinician to de-escalate situations involving emotional or mental health crises.

“I'm still a police officer. I still can arrest people, but that's not my assignment. I get to help the therapist that rides with me impact people who are having the worst day of their lives.

“It's the best place for the experience, and now the education, that I have. Working on my psychology degree helped me better understand a lot of the people that we would encounter and gave me more grace to better understand mental illness.”

Her goal is to earn a master’s degree in clinical mental health or trauma counseling and work with first responders. She wants to see more support in place for police officers – and their families who often experience secondary trauma – and more resiliency training for those entering law enforcement.

“If we can teach and educate new people coming into this field on how to protect themselves and work through these things, I think we'll see a huge difference in burnout and poor choices.”

For Kary, much of her passion comes from where there was a lack in her own career. But who better to walk alongside the next generation of police officers than someone who’s been in their shoes and faced what they face?

“It was almost like a calling,” Kary says of her decision to return to school. “I don't know how to explain it because I don't really know what pushed me other than someone from above.”

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