Law Enforcement Officers
Law enforcement officers respond to and witness some of the most tragic events that happen in our communities. On-the-job stress can have a significant impact on their physical and mental well-being, which can accumulate over the course of a career. Many officers struggle with alcohol abuse, depression, suicidal thoughts, posttraumatic stress disorder and other challenges. Here are some of the facts:
Fortunately, whether you’re a supervisor or patrol officer who wants to help a fellow officer, or a law enforcement leader interested in learning how to build a more resilient agency, there are things you can do to help.
Building Resiliency and Wellness for Law Enforcement Officers
For Fellow Officers
After any critical incident, like responding to a violent crime or death by suicide, each officer involved should have the opportunity to talk with a mental health professional or law enforcement peer support specialist as soon as possible. Supervisors and fellow officers can also offer support to their colleagues, as genuine concern and support can go a long way. Here are some ways to help immediately after an incident:
- Ensure safety. Make sure your fellow officer is safe and uninjured. If the immediate threat has passed, ask if he or she needs medical care.
- Provide practical help. Ask if there’s anything you can do. It can be as small as a cup of coffee, a ride home or a call to a family member.
- Offer to talk. Let the officer know you’re available to listen. Say, “That was intense. Do you want to talk?” Be patient and sit with them for a few minutes.
- Listen attentively. Some people will want to talk through what they experienced while others will not. Follow their lead. You shouldn’t worry about fixing the problem. Don’t tell him or her to suck it up, ask for details to satisfy your curiosity, or get side tracked telling a story of your own experience.
- Reassure. If the officer seems upset, reassure him or her that any reaction they’re having is normal. If they feel fine, that’s also okay. Say, “There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re having a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.” A hug can help too (if appropriate).
- Leave a number to call. Sometimes they might want to be left on their own. But before you leave, give them your phone number or the number of a 24-hour helpline for around-the-clock support in case they want to talk later.
For Law Enforcement Leaders
Law enforcement leaders can take proactive steps to build a more resilient agency to both help prevent mental health crises and address those that occur more effectively. A robust resource for this is NAMI’s Preparing for the Unimaginable: A Report on Officer Mental Health. In response to the Sandy Hook shooting, NAMI worked with the Department of Justice to develop this guide to help police chiefs support officer wellness and more. Here are a few takeaways from the report:
- Form a workgroup. Work with your command staff, supervisors, union leadership and mental health providers to decide what wellness supports officers need, such as education or an annual wellness check. Many agencies also find officer peer support programs helpful.
- Find the right mental health professional to support your officers. Work to find professionals who understand law enforcement culture and are familiar with trauma. To build trust and credibility, integrate these professionals into your agency’s day-to-day operations.
- Assign a mental health manager. This person will help implement mental wellness programs, evaluate policies related to psychological services and serve as your mental health incident commander during a critical incident.
- Revise policies and procedures around psychological services after critical incidents. Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) debriefings are used by many law enforcement agencies to support their officers after a critical incident. These debriefings are often rigidly structured and research has shown that they can be harmful to some officers. You can work with mental health professionals to identify more helpful interventions, such as Psychological First Aid or a debriefing protocol that provides support and education without having officers re-live a critical incident. You can also consider requiring a mandatory one-time wellness check with a mental health professional after a critical incident. This will provide any struggling officer the opportunity to get help without calling attention to themselves.
- Promote a supportive culture within your agency. Show your officers that you value their mental health by checking in with them in-person after a critical incident, keeping an open-door policy and instructing your command staff and supervisors to look after officers’ well-being. You can also utilize resources from the Office of Justice Program’s Vicarious Trauma Toolkit.
- Be prepared. Build close ties with community leaders, first responder agencies, faith groups, local media, schools and major employers. Working together effectively is the key to resilience for your entire community in case a critical incident occurs.
For The Public
It’s essential to ensure that officers can continue to protect our communities and respond to the needs of people living with mental illness. Law enforcement agencies and communities need to make officer mental wellness a priority from hire to retire. Here’s how you can help:
- Learn the facts. Learn about PTSD and trauma, and how it can impact first responders such as law enforcement officers.
- Connect. Reach out to connect with your local law enforcement agency. Begin to talk about the possibility of CIT in your community or ask them to participate in your NAMI Walk. This can introduce law enforcement to mental health and wellness for themselves, their department and their community.
- Offer Support. Make sure law enforcement officers and their agencies know about the programs and services offered through your local affiliate. This will help make NAMI a welcoming space if they need support in the future.