A Proactive Approach to Mental Wellness for Police Officers Is Desperately Needed

“Life does not consist mainly — or even largely — of facts and happenings. It consists of the storm of thoughts that is forever blowing through one’s head.” –Mark Twain (as quoted in Dan Manningham. Eight Stone Gates — Taking Thoughts Captive. Bemidji, MN: Focus Publishing, Inc., (2010) p. 110.)

Challenges

Despite intense demands on their psyche, the mental health needs of law enforcement officers (LEOs) are often overlooked until a response is necessitated by negative behavior or a significant event. Even when resources are available, many LEOs will not seek help voluntarily. Rather than waiting for problematic symptoms to appear, public safety agencies should take a proactive approach to stress management and the mental health of employees.

Many police departments provide wellness benefits in exchange for a small discount health care costs for employees. The goal of these programs is to ensure employees’ fitness for duty. Although these programs include annual physicals and health screenings, they rarely include psychological services. Implementation could also be completed in a relatively short time period with immediate and long-term benefits. This brief paper will recommend expanding wellness programs to include an annual session with a trained counselor specializing in stress management and exposure to traumatic events.

Inclusion of a mental health/stress management component in annual wellness programs can improve employee health and improve long-term productivity. Wellness programs are themselves an acknowledgement that law enforcement is wrought with occupational hazards. Despite a lack of preemptive mental health treatment, waiting for an employee to display negative behavior is inefficient and inadvisable. While effective in some situations, a reliance on voluntary referral causes some employees to fall through the cracks and leave issues unaddressed. While it may be impossible to resolve every stress related problem, significant improvements are realistically possible.

Although 100% success is impossible, it is reasonable to believe that successes will be quantifiable. Because serious behavior violations in law enforcement often make front-page news, the benefit of improving community perception and a reduction in negative media incidents should not be dismissed. While ensuring confidentiality, an expanded voluntary program would improve the quality of life for employees and is likely to result in fewer disciplinary issues.

Problems

One academic study (Collins & Gibbs, “Stress in police officers: a study of the origins, prevalence, and severity of stress-related symptoms within a county police force,” 2003) examined stress-related challenges in law enforcement and found significantly higher rates of stress, alcoholism, and divorce than most other occupations. Officers are at greater risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)(Kates, 2008), depression (Wasilewski & Olson, 2015, see here), and are more likely to commit suicide than die in the line of duty (Douglas, 1999). Given these factors, it is imperative for agencies to proactively attend to pressing mental health issues.

Agencies must deal with the fallout from critical incidents. When a LEO is exposed to a traumatic incident on duty, participation in debriefing and/or mental health screening is often mandatory. However, incidents of depression or substance abuse may be similarly damaging but go undetected. Since LEOs often decline to participate in voluntary counseling services, it is important to incorporate annual mental health screening into wellness programs.

Despite being common practice after traumatic law enforcement events, the effectiveness of singular debriefing sessions after critical incidents has also been questioned. One study (Rose et al., 2002) suggests that single session debriefing without further treatment may actually increase the risk of onset for PTSD, depression, and other mental health issues:

“There is no evidence that single session individual psychological debriefing is a useful treatment for the prevention or PTSD after traumatic incidents. Compulsory debriefing of victims of trauma should cease. A more appropriate response could involve a ‘screen and treat’ model.”

Another study (Devilly et al., 2006) found “…at least 30–40% of those who experience a significant stressful event go on to develop some significant distressing reactions by one year follow-up.” Studies on the impact of combat trauma on military veterans reach similar conclusions (Solomon and Benbenishty, 1986). Interestingly, these studies assume follow up assessment(s) occur. Many critical incidents in law enforcement do not even undergo a tactical debrief at the participant level, much less long-term psychological care. There is much room for improvement in the industry.

Some administrators may not realize the unique demands on LEOs (and other public safety professions) that require additional mental health resources. Although occupational stress in law enforcement cannot be totally avoided, the consequences can be mitigated and reduced through effective treatment. Perhaps most significantly, addressing this problem will reduce negative performance-related problems that arise from traumatic encounters or festering, unresolved stress-related problems. Dr. Kevin Gilmartin, a law enforcement behavioral sciences researcher, argues “There is often a long-term cost of being able to perform in these high-demand situations: failure to survive emotionally” (Gilmartin, 2009, see here). To their detriment, most agencies do not compel officers to participate in counseling or treatment beyond single incident debriefings.

Options

LEOs need long-term debriefing and counseling, causing some agencies to formalize peer support networks, such as New Jersey’s “Cop2Cop” program (see here) or the Phoenix Police Department (PPD) Employee Assistance Unit (EAU) (see here). These and other programs include a range of intervention options including informal peer support services and referral to external resources such as mental health counseling or fitness for duty evaluation. Similar programs exist in other police agencies, but often rely on “early warning” systems or LEO self-referrals.

Agencies may benefit by hiring qualified medical professional(s) to handle long-term treatment and reduce agency liability. The Tucson (Arizona) Police Department (TPD) Behavioral Sciences Unit (BSU) uses a hybrid model combining peer support and a staff psychologist, an innovative approach lauded by national police organizations. TPD’s BSU is comprised of a licensed psychologist and two sergeants who meet with new employees and provide short-term remediation for officers returning to duty. The staff psychologist sees approximately 10–12 patients/employees each week through voluntary and mandatory referrals. Although the BSU is granted specific confidentiality authority by TPD, the model still depends significantly on self-reporting (see here).

More can be done. If foreseeable stress-related issues are not intentionally addressed, unacceptable performance is a predictable outcome and can expose agencies to liability that in some cases could have been prevented. A yearly psychological screening and/or stress management counseling session will better prepare LEOs to cope with trauma during their career. This model of long-term care will make intervention part of routine annual care rather than depending on self-motivated LEOs. Much like traditional aspects of annual medical assessment, the goal is to ensure employees can perform their jobs effectively.

Recommendations

Existing peer support structures should formalized and incorporated with a staff psychologist when possible. It is reasonable to believe such efforts may reduce internal and external complaints, enhance risk management through reduced liability, and improve employee morale. LEOs and their employers would benefit from taking the Tucson model a step further with proactive, annual stress management counseling and/or mental health assessment. Integrating a Tucson model of peer support and psychological services with an annual wellness program would be progressive.

Including a significant mental health component in annual wellness programs ensures that participation is voluntary but compelling. Agencies would need to establish policy to ensure privacy and confidentiality. Such a model would modernize the way law enforcement agencies approach employee wellness and stress management. The practice would also address the negative effects of responding to traumatic incidents with perfunctory, single session debriefing.

Although this author is unable to identify any agencies that currently use a preventative annual wellness model for mental health, the literature consulted during this research supports the concept. Existing law enforcement tools such as “early warning” systems can be incorporated with a renewed focus on restoration. Undoubtedly, there is a recognized need for improvements in mental health for law enforcement officers. Agencies should take a proactive approach to employee health rather than responding only when negative behavior is observed. By addressing these issues preventatively, expanding wellness programs into mental health can improve the lives of LEOs and the communities they serve.


Indy_317_ is a 15-year law enforcement veteran and contributor to The White Hat Syndicate. You can follow Indy_317_ on Twitter: @Indy_317_

Indy_317_ is part of The White Hat Syndicate, a Medium account launched on October 26 that aims to publish thought-provoking articles about cutting-edge homeland security topics. The six authors come from a diverse array of professional and personal backgrounds: legal, fire, environmental health, federal transportation security, and law enforcement.

The Syndicate invites you to engage us in conversation, either here on Medium or via Twitter. We look forward to the discussion.


The ideas expressed in this story do not reflect the opinion of, or endorsement by, any public or private agency.

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