6 proactive steps to maintaining officers' mental health
You'd take a bullet for your fellow cops — how about helping them handle the psychological stresses of the job?
Well over a decade ago, in his seminal book Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement – A Guide for Officers and Their Families, Dr. Kevin Gilmartin observed, “Recruits are told the job takes its toll, but they are hardly ever told or shown how to minimize the negative effects of the journey through the police career. …Typically agencies give no strategies or preventive game plans to the recruit.”
Dr. Gilmartin went on to write: “Why aren’t law enforcement organizations at least attempting to prevent the destructive effects on employees brought on by years spent as officers? Although many agencies do have dedicated police psychologists and employee assistance programs available, these traditionally have been focused on resolving issues once they develop, not on preventing them.”
Pat Robinson, a retired police officer and former collegiate Dean of Public Safety, said, “We’re remiss in not helping officers find ways to manage the stress. Speaking for my own experience, it was not the ‘high-stress’ calls that were damaging. Those were the ones where you felt like you were doing something important — you know, saving the world, helping people, etc. The stressful part was being assailed as a racist, having to deal with adults acting like 2-year-olds and knowing every day someone will call you an obscene name.”
Robinson added, “We had training in the academy about how to de-escalate situations, how to talk to people, etc., but we never got anything about how to manage our own emotions and deal with the emotional toll the job takes on us.”
Police suicide and PTSD are at least beginning to be addressed, perhaps because the military’s attention to those issues has helped destigmatize them. But that’s not enough.
At a recent visit to a DPS academy, I learned that the commander had arranged for a local physical therapist to come in one day a week to be available to see recruits on an as-needed basis.
I thought this community networking was great. The therapist was volunteering this time, and sessions were by appointment so less training time would be missed by the recruits. Plus, the arrangement communicated the academy’s proactive commitment to physical health and fitness.
I asked the commander about a similar arrangement for mental health therapy. After a noticeable silence, he replied, “I guess I never thought about it.”
I asked, “Or is it more like, ‘If they can’t handle the stress of the academy, how are they supposed to handle the stress of the job?’”
He answered, “Probably more that.”
I asked why mental health needs were treated differently than physical health needs. He questioned how confidentiality would work with such an arrangement if fitness for duty became a question. I assume it would work the same way that physical health issues do. But, of course, that’s not the case if the profession attaches a stigma to one and not the other. Clearly, this stigma is alive and well in the profession.
What Can and Should Be Done
The Indianapolis Metro Police Department (IMPD) has developed and implemented a national award-winning proactive officer wellness program. How they did it is in their model narrative.
New Jersey developed Cop2Cop, legislated into law to focus on suicide prevention and mental health support for law enforcement officers. It offers a free 24/7 peer and clinical support services hotline, clinical assessments, referrals, and critical incident stress management.
Providing officers with direct help in the form of department chaplains or psychologists and insurance plans that have good provisions for outpatient counseling with outside psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists is lipstick on a pig if the prevailing culture stigmatizes availing oneself of such help. Police leaders — beginning in the academies — need to clearly communicate a proactive approach to officers’ mental health. Here are six suggestions to consider:
- Make plentiful and obvious brochures that outline stress indicators and symptoms, as well as self-help and professional means for addressing them.
- Make such subjects the topics of roll call, in-service and academy training. Bring in outside instructors. Many might be willing to volunteer such time.
- Make daily mental health an important part of the recruitment and hiring process.
- Recognize and reward officers who proactively and retroactively address their mental health.
- An academy where I teach recognizes records for the most pushups and sit-ups and fastest run and swim times. Challenge recruits to identify stressors at the academy and come up with healthy ways to address them such as mentoring, mind-body meditations, a helpful de-stressor “tip” list for subsequent recruits, etc. Recognize and reward such problem solving.
- Network in your communities for volunteer services, like the physical therapist who volunteers in the academy one day a week.
The Cop2Cop website says, “It takes courage to help others. It takes more courage to ask for help. It is tragic that we’ve made it harder for officers to get the help they need than to help others.”
We’re about to turn the calendar to a new year. Let’s take this opportunity to start anew and address this issue head-on.