IACP Quick Take: How a counseling service saves police lives
The services, treatment practices and lessons learned by the Chicago Police Department were shared with police chiefs, leaders at IACP 2019
By Greg Friese
CHICAGO – The Chicago Police Department has an in-house Professional Counseling Service/Employee Assistant Program (EAP) that is responsible for the protection, maintenance and restoration of the emotional well-being of its more than 13,000 members, retirees and their families.
At the 126th International Association of Chiefs of Police conference, Robert Sobo, PsyD, director of the Chicago Police Department Professional Counseling Service/EAP, drew on 20 years of experience to discuss the significant issues impacting law enforcement officer well-being.
Those issues include:
- Substance abuse;
- Domestic violence.
In the last two years, the Professional Counseling Service/EAP has grown from three to 10 licensed clinicians who provide individual, marital and family therapy to sworn and retired CPD members. Every CPD district has an assigned clinician and the service has grown because of the need for services. The department, to Sobo’s knowledge, is the only one in the U.S. to offer unlimited therapy to officers’ family members. The wellness of children and spouses is an important contributor to an officer’s well-being.
In addition to counseling services, the Professional Counseling Service/EAP delivers a:
- 4-hour mandatory training for every CPD supervisor.
- 2-day stress management seminar, offered two times per month, that teaches officers how to identify a normal reaction to a tragedy and different techniques for stress management.
- Trauma program which requires officers to go through a mandatory debriefing for certain type of incidents before returning to duty.
Memorable quotes on mental health and counseling services
Sobo gave a captivating, unscripted presentation while also taking questions from the audience on improving officer well-being services. Here are five memorable quotes from Sobo’s presentation.
“Clinical need for well-being and services is so great, we need resources and staff to handle those.”
“We have a divorce rate that is through the roof in law enforcement. What is so destructive about law enforcement?”
“If you want your (officer’s) home to be healthy, you (a police leader) need to set the tone in the workplace.”
“Vicarious trauma isn’t just one experience but the everyday experience of the cumulative experience of tragedy. Vicarious trauma is probably responsible for at any given time of 40% of law enforcement experiencing depression.”
“A peer support program can be the saving grace of wellness.”
Top takeaways on an in-house police counseling service
Sobo made a compelling case for an in-house police officer counseling program, EAP and peer support to improve officer well-being through prevention programs, early detection and a combination of immediate peer support and trauma debriefs that are offered by the counseling service.
Here are four takeaways from Sobo’s presentation:
1. Mental health services are lifesaving, career-saving
Programs need to be implemented to assist police officers in the prevention of mental health trauma, as well as treating officers after trauma or individual and family counseling to assist officers to regain regular or normal mental health.
Though the department’s incidence of suicide has not significantly changed in recent years, the need for services has grown. Providing these services is a department-wide effort that has grown significantly with recent department leadership changes and training supervisors to take responsibility for the well-being of their officers.
When asked about advice for smaller departments, Sobo encouraged attendees to:
- Participate in regional and state peer support teams:
- Look for licensed counselors who are knowledgeable of law enforcement:
- Seek out education and training on how to implement police specific EAP and counseling services.
2. Utilization of mental health services improves well-being
The life of a police officer involves constant and unpredictable exposure to chaotic incidents and interactions. “In order to survive an officer needs to be really aware of their surroundings,” Sobo said. Being in a constant state of alert makes it nearly impossible for an officer to be in a mode of homeostasis, which puts an officer at risk of cardiac-, circulatory- and stress-related health problems.
Sobo described the use of alcohol and other substances as a calming activity to recover from the chaotic. Officers need a more constructive way to recover from a shift than alcohol.
3. You bring your well-being wherever you go
When discussing the high rate of divorce in law enforcement, Sobo dismissed the idea that an officer can’t bring the job home. Rather than guarding the experience of law enforcement, an officer should be open about how they spend the majority of their working hours. A spouse or significant other needs to be brought into the conversation of what it’s like to be a police officer.
“Bring the job home in a healthy way,” Sobo said.
4. Leaders set the tone for well-being
The tone a police supervisor sets in the district or precinct for well-being and use of mental health service directly impacts officers’ mental health, friends, family and life outside of work.
Supervisors, through training, must be responsible for knowing their personnel, including their background, to understand the types of incidents or interactions most likely to impact them personally. Sobo contrasted how two 24-year-old officers, a single male and a female just returning from maternity leave, might react to an infant abuse incident. Supervisors need to be able to identify any officers in their district who might warrant a trauma program debriefing.
Learn more about police suicide prevention and peer support
Throughout the presentation, Sobo answered audience questions and shared examples from the CPD counseling service. To learn more about police suicide prevention and peer support check out these PoliceOne articles:
- Alarms sound after 6 Chicago PD suicides in 8 months
- Suicide prevention resources for first responders
- How to reduce police officer suicides
- 9 ways for cops to fight mental health stigma
- How to launch a successful peer support program
- 6 considerations for PDs looking to start a peer support group
About the author
Greg Friese, MS, NRP, is the Lexipol editorial director, leading the efforts of the editorial team on PoliceOne, FireRescue1, CorrectionsOne, EMS1 and EfficientGov. He is an educator, author, paramedic and runner. Ask questions or submit article ideas to Greg by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.