Serving Those Who Serve: Mental Health Has Become A National Police Priority

As the motto goes, the role of law enforcement is “to protect and serve.” But the extent of their jobs doesn’t end just because a shift ends. Like firemen and other first responders, police officers are tasked with many duties that can often take a toll on their mental health and wellbeing. But unlike their first responder peers, police officers work individually (not in teams), and have an intimate relationship with violence and human beings at their most extreme conditions, while having to keep their emotions in check.

Day in and day out they are called upon to see the worst in humanity and take action to protect others. But despite the resilience necessary for success in the job, the mental, emotional, and physical toll can be great. In fact, in 2017 and 2018, more police officers died by suicide than died in the line of duty. So for those who do so much for others, it’s time to think about themselves.

Annually, the Month of May is designated as Mental Health Month. But the second week in May also happens to be National Police Week. And, the perfect time to have an honest conversation about the overlap of the two events. Although it’s uncomfortable to talk about, the truth is that despite variation by type of agency, department, and geography, suicide rates among law enforcement are greater than the general public, and even four times higher than other first responders like firefighters.

As Dean Esserman, senior counselor of the National Police Foundation and former police chief of New Haven, Connecticut, Providence, Rhode Island, and Stamford, Connecticut points out, “It’s one thing to see a dead human being. It’s another to see that dead human being while holding the mother of that human as she cries on your shoulder. That is a career path committed to the emotional trauma of others, while often ignoring the impact on yourself. And that can be isolating.”

He also points out that the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial is the only living memorial in Washington, D.C. Meaning, it is the only memorial where names are added every year. This week, another 101 names will be added to the wall – honoring those who have lost their lives in the line of duty since May 2018. However, none of the hundreds more who have died off duty will join the wall.

Overcoming Stigma

When police officers make headlines, it’s usually about the rare cases at the extremes – with day-to-day stressors and workload going unnoticed and unappreciated by the public. But that doesn’t change that the trauma experienced literally re-wires the brain. Or as Dr. Michael Genovese, a clinical psychiatrist, Chief Medical Officer at Acadia Healthcare (the largest behavioral health provider in the country), and Medical Director for the FBI National Academy puts it, “Post-traumatic stress is an injury. The result of something horrifying or traumatic. Not a character flaw or weakness.”

This stigma of addressing mental health concerns extends beyond perception. It goes deep within the officers themselves, and in some cases the organizations they work in. Law enforcement as a profession requires being able to disengage from emotional responses in difficult situations. But the job demands so much emotional and mental endurance that disengaging from the trauma, as well as attempting to not take it home, can distance an officer from family.

The stigma can also sometimes be justified, for fear of repercussions in admitting mental health concerns. Some agencies demand that a police officer hand over their badge and gun if they seek or receive mental health treatment. Or, they may be faced with duty restrictions while receiving care, limiting pay and creating a public display of their treatment. It is this type of stigma that often leads to a cycle of depression, anxiety and feelings of aloneness.

Help Is On The Way

With this lingering stigma in mind, theInternational Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the world’s largest and most influential association of police leadership, dedicated this month’s edition of Police Chief magazine solely to mental health – particularly skills training and understanding mental resilience.

This is perfectly aligned with Dr. Genovese’s program – adopted from the U.S. Air Force – which has been created to assist law enforcement officers and first responders deal with the mental health issues that come with their difficult jobs. The goal of the Comprehensive Officer Resilience Train-the-Trainer Program, is to teach police officers and first responders how to cope with trauma, post-traumatic stress and other mental health issues through retraining the brain and resilience. To date nearly 300 officers have completed training, and the three-day program is offered at no charge to officers.

When less than 10% of U.S. police departments have a suicide prevention program, and often times, the system appears to be working against improving mental health conditions for law enforcement, programs like these are invaluable. By addressing mental, physical, social and spiritual health (of which Dr. Genovese does all four), the skills and resources that are not available to police through insurance or at work can be attained.

The “One Congregation One Precinct” (OneCOP) initiative has also become a resource for many, by recognizing that faith-based institutions are places where people gather, and thus, are largely untapped resources for strengthening police-community cooperation.

There have also been a number of state and city initiatives to address the mental health needs of law enforcement. For example in Nebraska, after the success of a pilot program that stationed a mental health therapist in an Omaha police precinct, every precinct in the state will be following suit. The city of Chicago has also taken steps, such as creating awareness videos for the city’s more than 10,000 officers, to highlight available resources in the region.

“Resilience training is about getting officers to open up about mental health and think of their brain as an organ that deserves as much care as the rest of their body,” says Dr. Genovese. And his perspective is gaining traction throughout the law enforcement world. It’s time that those who protect and serve, are protected themselves.

Additional Resources

Police can text “BLUE” or “TALK” to 741-741 to reach the Crisis Text Line.

For those looking for additional resources, BLUE H.E.L.P. has extensive resources.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness also has law enforcement-specific resources.  

 For those who would like to call, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.


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