9 steps to creating a culture that supports officer mental wellness
An FOP survey found that 90% of officers believe there is still a stigma that prevents cops from seeking help for emotional or behavioral health issues
In a 2018 Fraternal Order of Police survey (available in full below) of nearly 8,000 police officers, 79% of participants reported they had at some point suffered critical stress in the course of their duties as an LEO, with 69% reporting that stressful experiences as a police officer caused unresolved or lingering emotional issues.
These unresolved emotional issues led to a range of effects in the officers' lives, including sleep problems, relationship problems and thoughts of suicide.
Perhaps the most significant finding of the survey was that 90% of the respondents believe there is a stigma in law enforcement that creates a barrier to seeking help for emotional or behavioral health issues.
Cultural changes in law enforcement start from the top down. Police leaders must work to create a culture of acceptance around promoting officer mental wellness and resiliency and accessing mental healthcare services. Here are nine steps all LE agencies can take to remove that stigma and get officers the assistance they need, as well as address community mental health concerns:
1. Talk openly about mental health.
Making conversations about mental health normal and routine goes a long way toward erasing stigma. Cops regularly have contact with mentally ill people yet many still feel out of their element in this setting. Cops are often uncomfortable with direct contact or prefer to see themselves as strictly crime fighters. Familiarize yourself by joining in the conversation and becoming fluent in the language of mental health care.
2. Educate yourself and others about mental health
Seek out training above and beyond what you may have received in the academy or what is mandated by your department. Accept that understanding, working with, serving, and, yes, arresting and holding accountable people who are mentally ill is an essential job function of police officers and take responsibility to be the best you can be at it.
3. Be conscious of your language
Use appropriate and sensitive language to avoid stigmatizing people who are mentally ill. Even in the confines of the station house or during car-to-car conversations, understand that your words may hurt. Colleagues sitting next to you may be in treatment or have family members or friends who are under care. Even if they are not undergoing treatment, someone who overhears your belief that the mentally ill are whack jobs or nutcases subsequently may avoid seeking help or opening up about their pain.
4. Encourage equality in how people perceive physical and mental illnesses
Many physical illnesses are symptomatic of an organic malfunction of one or more of the body’s organs. The brain is an organ that is far more complex in its function than any other organ and is just as susceptible to disease or dysfunction. Respect that.
5. Show empathy and compassion for those living with a mental health condition
Empathy doesn’t cost a thing and what it can do for someone in pain or crisis pays huge dividends. Also, imagine how someone in your department who lives with mental illness must feel when they see peers equate such an illness with character flaws.
6. Avoid criminalizing mental illness
Although we’ve come a long way toward understanding mental illness in law enforcement, a lot of officers see arrest as the first or only response to minor crimes committed by someone who may be acting out for lack of better options. This is not to say persons with mental illness do not commit crimes; they do, and sometimes arrest is the best, most effective way to force the issue and get them the help they need. But when you are clearly dealing with someone who is mentally ill, consider alternatives to arrest when feasible.
7. push back against how persons who live with mental illness are portrayed in the media
Stigma grows where stereotypes and misinformation are rampant. Politicians, pundits and performers often perpetuate and even encourage stigma in opinions expressed about, or portrayals of, people with mental illness. Even police officials, when commenting on certain high-profile incidents both publicly or within the station, can stigmatize mental illness by painting with an overly broad brush. As much as you are able, don’t allow this.
Now, more than at any time in our history, the media is us. Social media adds the voices of consumers to the media narrative and dissenting voices can push back against unfair portrayals in real-time. A well-constructed letter or email starting with, “Hey, I’m a cop and what you’ve (said/done/written) is simply untrue. Let me tell you why…” always grabs someone’s attention.
Even how officers discuss cases involving mental illness with the public, or how PIOs present them to the media, can shape the public narrative. Choose compassion.
8. See the person, not the illness
Human beings are complex, complicated, whole individuals bigger than any one aspect of their personality. Forcing yourself to see the person rather than the illness is the key to maintaining empathy. Police officers often see and relate to people in crisis or at the worst moments of their lives; imagining the same people outside of crisis, or when life is good and emotions even and well-regulated, can be difficult. It’s the same with mental illness.
The man with crippling anxiety, who lost it during a panic attack, crying and unable to tell you why? He’s a successful, top-tier executive of a Fortune 100 company. The suicidal young woman who pulled off to the side of the road after driving around aimlessly for three hours to call 911? She’s a second-year law student at an Ivy League university. The young man who’s recently been struggling with hallucinations and conspiracy theories? He’s an Eagle Scout and was an all-conference defensive back in high school before the voices started in. Tapping into strengths and seeing the illness as merely a part of their whole will be key to healing, and you can be part of that.
9. Become an advocate for mental health reform
Push for reform in how your colleagues and departments treat people who are mentally ill. Encourage funding for services, treatments and beds. Ask for (or demand) more regular and comprehensive training related to mental illness, especially for recognizing and helping other cops who may be in vulnerable places emotionally. Advocate for departmental services for wounded officers, even if those wounds aren’t the kind that bleed or bruise.