Addressing the Mental Health Stigma in Law Enforcement
By Kelly Long, PsyD, contributor to In Public Safety
In 2017, a Ruderman Family Foundation study found that police officers experience depression at a rate five times higher than the average person. That same year, 140 officers committed suicide, compared to 129 officers who died in the line of duty.
Being a police officer is an incredibly stressful profession. Officers see the worst that society has to offer and this reality often batters one’s mental health. Regular exposure to horrific scenes and heightened levels of stress can have a profound effect on a person’s body and mind. Yet, despite the well-established evidence, why are officers still reluctant or unwilling to seek help? What can be done to remove the stigma associated with mental health in the law enforcement community?
Reasons Why Officers Don’t Seek Help
Officers choose not to seek help for their mental wellness for a variety of reasons. Officer Mike Wasilewski, a licensed certified social worker (LCSW), writes that the stigma is often caused by the perceptions of officers themselves. An officer is supposed to be strong, self-reliant, and fearless. Many officers believe that asking for help, or acknowledging that they are struggling, is an admission that they are not those things. They also often fear fellow officers will lose trust in them or think they are not able to handle the responsibilities and pressures of the job.
There are also some very real external pressures that prevent officers from seeking help. Many officers are concerned with privacy and believe professional counseling sessions will not remain confidential. If their counseling relationship is exposed, they could lose their security clearance or right to carry a firearm, which would likely lead to losing their job. Many officers have families to support and do not want to risk losing their incomes (and careers) by seeking counseling.
Some law enforcement departments require officers to inform superiors if they seek counseling. This can also apply to medication. If officers are prescribed medication, they often are required to disclose that information and, as a result, may have some duties taken away or severely limited. This can impact their ability to carry a weapon and may jeopardize promotions or other career opportunities.
Law enforcement leaders also often perpetuate the stigma that prevents officers from addressing their mental health. The New Jersey’s Governor’s Council on Mental Health found that the lack of understanding about mental health issues by both officers and departmental leaders contributed strongly to a police culture that promotes secrecy and denial.
In the October 2010 issue of FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, former law enforcement professional Daniel Mattos summed up the problem quite well. He said, “By the very nature of what we do as police officers, we are unavoidably exposed to a host of toxic elements that can be likened to grains of emotional sand that ever so gradually are placed on our psychological backs. As time goes on, the sand increases in volume. Without the proper tools to remove it, the weight becomes unbearable.”
The Power of Peer-Based Programs
There are some good signs that police culture, and the stigmatization of mental health issues, are starting to be addressed. Many departments throughout the country have created peer-based programs that offer support to officers through peer-support programs and critical incident stress teams.
Peer Support Programs
Peer support programs are not a new phenomenon. The Los Angeles Police Department was one of the first departments to start a peer support program in 1982. Through the years, these programs have gained momentum and show that when they’re sanctioned and supported fully by the department, they can be very successful and effective.
A peer-support program is a group of specially trained volunteer officers within the department who are trained to aid their fellow officers during times of both professional and personal crisis. According to Cole Zercoe of PoliceOne, a peer support program can actively work to prevent and treat the crippling after-effects of trauma. It’s important that officers who are applying to be peer mentors go through a stringent selection and training process. Training focuses on teaching active listening skills and how to recognize and assess an officer’s needs.
While peer support programs can have many benefits, there are also noteworthy limitations. For example, peer mentors are not trained mental health professionals so they are limited in their knowledge and scope of mental health issues and treatment options. Mentors must know how and when to refer officers to a professional counselor for further support.
Peer support programs are not the perfect solution. Officers who are hesitant to seek professional help may also be unlikely to seek out peer support for similar reasons, including concerns about confidentiality and being stigmatized by their peers. However, despite these recognized limitations, it remains important for departments to offer a peer support program.
Critical Incident Stress Debriefing Teams
Another important peer-based program is a critical incident response team which is a specially trained team that includes both professional and peer-support personnel who can respond immediately in the aftermath of a traumatic event. Critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) members are taught to understand a wide range of crisis intervention services to include demobilizations, small group debriefings, and defusing. Many members on the team have themselves experienced a traumatic event on the job.
A critical incident response team works in the immediate aftermath of a crisis event to help officers cope and talk about what they experienced. Debriefing sessions take place in a group setting and provide a safe, non-judgmental environment for officers to engage with one another at the direction of the team. This debriefing strategy is believed to help mitigate the long-term mental health issues that often follow a traumatic event.
However, these teams also have their limitations. They are not trained mental health professionals; they are there to render psychological first aid. As with any mental health situation, there will be some officers who will choose not to participate, fearing the repercussions of “letting it all out.” To counteract that response, departments must continue to communicate and educate their officers on all aspects of mental health and wellness.
Finding More Ways to Support Officers’ Mental Wellness
Even with the implementation of peer-based support programs and enhanced awareness by leadership about mental health needs, more still must be done. Suicide rates and traumatic stress injuries remain prominent and problematic in law enforcement. More research must be conducted to better understand the problem and identify more effective methods to treat and support officers.
Most importantly, all officers and leaders need to take it upon themselves to end the stigma associated with mental health issues. Officers must start supporting each other and encouraging those who are struggling to get the help they need. Officers must also be brave enough to evaluate their own mental wellness, acknowledge when they themselves need help, and take steps to get the help they deserve.
About the Author: Dr. Kelly Long has been a Special Agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) for more than 18 years. During her tenure at ATF, she has worked arson, violent crime, and narcotics investigations. Additionally, she has been a public information officer, a recruiter, and has taught Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.). She holds a master’s degree in Education and Criminal Justice and a Doctorate in Psychology (PsyD). Her interests include post-traumatic stress disorder, victimization, and trauma. Currently, she is assigned to an Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force in the Washington, D.C. area. To contact the author, email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter