Why it’s time to go to battle for officer wellness

The Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office has seen considerable success from a wellness team designed to help cops cope


By Dr. Cherylynn Lee and Lt. Jarrett Morris

The mission of law enforcement is to serve and protect the community. We are a culture of guardians, warriors, protectors and fixers. Cops are pretty good at solving problems – as long as the problems belong to someone else. When did it become permissible to care for everyone except ourselves in our culture? When did our organizations start caring more about statistics and liability and less about the well-being of their people and their families? The tide of officer wellness is not to be dismissed. It's coming. For some, it's here. For others, it's on the horizon, and to the old school knuckle draggers, it may yet be a blip on the radar.

At the Santa Barbara Sheriff's Office, we are in the process of developing a culture of wellness and have instituted programs and procedures that support, protect and care for our people. Changing cop culture is about as easy as pushing a 4,000 boulder uphill in the middle of a war zone. That being said, every battle needs a champion – in our case, we had two – a police psychologist and a sheriff's lieutenant. This is our story.

The Santa Barbara Sheriff's Office is in the process of developing a culture of wellness and have instituted programs and procedures that support, protect and care for their people.
The Santa Barbara Sheriff's Office is in the process of developing a culture of wellness and have instituted programs and procedures that support, protect and care for their people. (SBSO)

Lt. Jarrett Morris: When I began my career as a law enforcement officer in 2005, you would not dare share with anyone that you were having any life struggles, a bad day, or that you may not be sleeping because of bad dreams. "Suck it up" was the mantra back then. You were expected to be a warrior with no feelings, not a human.

Over the past 17 years as a sheriff's deputy, I have been fortunate regarding assignments, and I am a proactive-minded person. With my assignments and activity level, I often found myself part of many critical incidents: officer-involved shootings, mass casualty incidents, numerous scenes of violence and responding to calls involving dead children. No part of my training ever prepared me to handle or deal with these incidents or the cumulative stress I would later have.

I did what most cops did; I buried my feelings. I had no source of stress relief and no built-up resilience. I would go home, talk about work, work as much overtime as I could, talk about work, and work some more. I was not eating right, not working out regularly (if ever), and not sleeping, leading to an unpleasant version of me.

As I continued my career, I married, and we had children. During this time in my career, I worked in special investigations, and my schedule was a mess; I was always working. I began coming home angry, yelling at my young children, who were happy to see dad. I became distant from my wife, even lying to her about little things (always getting caught, of course). Simultaneously, I would continue to bury my stress and emotions.

After being a part of the investigative team for a mass shooting where six people were killed and as a rescuer during a debris flow that killed 23 people, my physical and emotional health was depleting. I was not taking care of myself. I was not taking care of my family.

One day, the day I call my rock bottom, my wife told me she was worried about me, my emotional instability, and how I treated her and the kids. She told me I needed to get some help to deal with my emotions.

In Santa Barbara County, we are very fortunate to have a non-profit organization providing free and unlimited therapy services specifically for cops and other first responders. Reluctantly, I made an appointment and had my first therapy session. I remember walking into the session and telling the therapist, "I do not want to do this, and you will not make me cry." Well, five minutes later, I was crying. It felt good to begin unpacking all the emotions I had buried for many years.

This was the beginning of a new chapter in my life. It took some time, but I have a better relationship with my wife, kids and myself.

Dr. Cherylynn Lee: As a police psychologist, I have heard many stories from my officers. Stories of hate, fear, sadness and death … stories of bravery, valor and strength. When I started at the sheriff's office in 2015, I quickly learned that our agency and policing were generally reactive regarding officer stress and trauma. It was permissible to go to a debrief, but only if you were in an OIS and one of the shooters. Anything less than a very public, tactical incident was shoved under a rug or drank away.

I found myself wondering, how in the world do we start steering this ship in a healthier direction? I could see what we needed. I could also shout it from the rooftops, and not everyone would hear me. I needed a sworn partner to help push the 4,000 boulders up the hill because LE suicides outpaced LODDs, and we were already in the middle of the war, and we were losing. It was time to go to battle.

Jarrett: In January 2018, my team responded to Montecito, California, to support search and recovery operations for those who perished in a debris flow the night before. Equipped with an armored vehicle and a team of motivated deputies, we spent days recovering dead bodies. After this grueling task, we were asked to report to the Command Post for a ridealong. We were tired, dirty and had not seen our family in days, so a ridealong was not exactly what I needed at that moment. On arrival, I was introduced to police psychologist Dr. Lee.

Responding to critical incidents takes a toll on first responders.
Responding to critical incidents takes a toll on first responders. (SBSO)

A lieutenant explained they wanted her to spend the remainder of the day riding with us so she could get a sense of what we had been dealing with. We said OK and loaded into the armored vehicle. Over the next several hours, Dr. Lee tried to engage us in conversation and get to know us. We did not say a word to Dr. Lee. Not a word. It was the most awkward experience because we assumed she was there to judge us and remove us from our assignment. No one said that that was the case, but that is what we thought of psychologists at the time, in general.

Dr. Lee: To be fair, many cops think a police psychologist’s role is to evaluate, discipline, and take away a cop’s gun and badge. Although psychologists assist with pre-employment psychological testing and fit for duty (FFD) examinations, there is much more breadth and depth and support available. We can offer trauma support, therapy, peer support training, critical incident stress debriefing and internal wellness programs. We need to get to a place in law enforcement culture where psychologists' skill sets, outside of pre-employment and FFD, are seen as necessary components of policing.

I remember meeting Lt. Morris. It was awkward. But how can I be effective if I’m just in an office all day? Awkward I can deal with. Ineffective, no thank you. Being a police psychologist is different from treating civilian depression in an office. Sometimes your best work is done on a freeway overpass listening to the whistles of cadaver dog handlers in the distance.

A wellness team is formed

About six months after the debris flow, the two of us started holding brainstorming meetings and decided to create a collateral wellness team. Our wellness team was formed in 2018 and consists of a custody commander, LE commander, LE sergeant, LE lieutenant, dispatch supervisor, civilian support staff and the department psychologist. We strategically approached persons who were well respected within the agency and spoke to them about our vision. We wanted representation from every aspect of the organization. After all, deputy sheriffs, records clerks, custody personnel and dispatchers are all exposed to some trauma in one form or another.

"Seeing your colleagues benefiting from the internal support of the agency is wonderful to see."
"Seeing your colleagues benefiting from the internal support of the agency is wonderful to see." (SBSO)

The wellness team at the Santa Barbara Sheriff's Office strongly advocated for a program that included mental fitness, peer support, physical fitness, nutritional support and financial support. We presented our vision and mission statement and threw in a couple of words like "recruitment" and "retention" to our executive staff in hopes they would bless us moving forward. They did.

Like many organizations around the United States, the direct psychological support offered to employees is EAP. Most of the time, these programs don’t work for our culture. The therapists are interns with a few years on, at best, and you hope (at least) they know the difference between civil and criminal litigation. I’ve heard plenty of horror stories about how the cop had to help stop the therapist from crying after telling their story. We needed something different. We partnered with 911 AT EASE International and The Counseling Team International, both well-respected organizations that contract with culturally competent clinicians who serve first responders and their family members. We offered a pathway for our sworn and civilian staff and their family members to receive free, confidential psychological support, spousal support and debriefs.

RELATED: Why officer wellness programs are no longer optional

Peer support

Jarrett: As I was working on my struggles, I began to think about all the law enforcement officers I work with. Are they having similar struggles? Do they know where to go to get help?

We began seeking advice from colleagues at other law enforcement agencies across Southern California who had peer support programs. We quickly learned that peer support was crucial for helping our employees deal with stress related to personal and professional issues, including critical incidents, death notifications, funeral planning, substance abuse, divorce and everything in between. They were the air traffic controllers between boots on the ground and higher-level clinical services if needed.

As we began to structure a peer support team, I took on the role of peer supporter for the entire agency. For close to two years, I received numerous phone calls from employees of our agencies in different stages of a crisis. Sometimes I would spend an hour on the phone with them just listening. Other times, I would help them connect with therapy resources.

In developing our program and recruiting peer supporters, we developed a survey to send to all employees. The purpose of the survey was to identify employees of our agency that others would trust talking to in a time of need. With close to a 70% return on the surveys, we identified the right people in our organization for recruitment. Most of the identified agreed to be on the team without hesitation.

We developed a two-day training program to teach all our new peer supporters about their new roles. Topics included:

  • The peer support mission statement
  • Confidentiality
  • Defusing and debriefing
  • Post-traumatic stress injury and cumulative stress
  • Resilience building and how to take care of yourself

At the two-day training conclusion, our new team was prepared and ready to support their colleagues. It wasn’t long before the team was put to work.

RELATED: Why peer support teams are at the heart of a healthy agency

Physical fitness and nutrition

Jarrett: As I began to learn how to take care of myself, I recognized the importance of taking care of yourself so you can appropriately take care of others. A part of my emotional struggle was “believing” I was doing everything I could to take care of my wife and kids. I was only making things worse with my bad attitude.

While in therapy, I was taught the importance of taking care of myself, which led me on several other journeys in life surrounding fitness, nutrition and financial health. All three are very important to your success and longevity as a law enforcement officer.

Dr. Lee: In my private practice outside of the sheriff's office, I only see first responders, and I specialize in Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). People don’t necessarily expect me to bring up fitness and nutrition, but we talk about it. Psychological and emotional wellness isn’t just about being and thinking and talking and feeling. I once heard a great quote: “You can’t think your way out of a thinking problem.” Sometimes you’re angry. Sometimes you need to talk about it. Sometimes you need to lift something heavy and exhaust yourself physically. You have a tactical tool belt with different options to address threats. It would be best if you also had a wellness tool belt also.

Through research and practice, we know that physical fitness for law enforcement officers will enhance their careers by optimizing their performance, reducing the likelihood of injuries, and reducing stress. Finding a fitness routine that works for you can relieve stress, but discipline is vital.

To help prioritize physical fitness, you may want to think about:

  • Make time to engage in physical fitness every day.
  • Break a sweat.

During the week, try to incorporate:

  • Aerobic exercise
  • Anaerobic exercise
  • Strength training
  • Mobility
  • Holding yourself accountable and competing with a colleague

Nutrition is just as important. Irregular shifts and odd hours lead officers to grab a quick meal from a fast-food restaurant or convenience store. Knowing what you consume each day will substantially affect your physical, mental and emotional performance, hormones, immune system, sleep, recovery and energy levels. Tracking calories and micronutrition is proven to motivate behavior change. You can't change something if you don’t know what that something is you want to change

I would encourage those who want to learn more about fitness and nutrition for law enforcement officers to reach out to Effective Fitness Training.

For our agency and to support our wellness mission, we partnered on a grant and were able to secure a $120,000 COPS grant funding through the Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act, along with donations from the Sheriff’s Benevolent Posse; we were able to purchase 150 licenses to a fitness app, partnered with a first responder focused nutritional program and paid for peer support training.

RELATED: 30 days to a new you: Take Police1's better health challenge

Financial health

Jarrett: When speaking to deputies, especially recently married young deputies, I find a significant cause of their stress is related to financial issues. Most of us have done it. We are young and can work much overtime. Once we get married, and our priorities have (or should have) changed to our family, we work less overtime and make less money. This will often strain bank accounts because we are still paying off a lovely house, a couple of vehicles, a boat, a motorcycle, and the list goes on.

Young cops need to learn about financial health as early as possible. The following steps will lead you to financial health:

  • Create a budget.
  • Establish a savings account.
  • Establish an emergency fund.
  • Focus on your retirement account.
  • Save for children's college education.

Dr. Lee: We are still working on what we can offer our employees regarding financial fitness. Neither Jarrett nor I pretend to be the most intelligent person in the room when there are other subject matter experts who can offer our people more relevant, meaningful advice. I’m a psychologist, not an accountant. I’ll be using that resource when it comes our way!

RELATED: Financial fitness for law enforcement officers 

Conclusion

Jarrett: I will be honest; the development and onboarding of a new peer support and wellness team are all-encompassing; as with any new program, you will develop additional stresses. It will not be easy. However, if you are focused on helping those who spend their career protecting and serving the community, the figurative blood, sweat, and tears are worth it. Seeing your colleagues benefiting from the internal support of the agency is wonderful to see. Lastly, I recommend you start by being an excellent example to others. Learn to take care of yourself first to take care of others.

Dr. Lee: There is nothing more honorable than being a peace officer. Please know that you are valued, appreciated, and supported. Culturally competent psychologists are here and ready to help you and your organization be successful. Yes, you signed up for pain. You didn’t sign up for suffering. Let wellness in, take control of it, and make it work for you. I promise you, it’s worth it.

If you need help working on creating the program, contact Dr. Lee at crl5034@sbsheriff.org or Lt. Morris at jam3768@sbsheriff.org.  


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About the authors

Dr. Cherylynn Lee is a police psychologist and works full-time for the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office as the Behavioral Sciences manager, overseeing the mental health co-response teams, CIT training and Wellness Unit, including Peer Support. As part of her duties, Dr. Lee is a member of the county’s threat management team and serves on the crisis negotiation response teams for both the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office and the Santa Barbara Police Department. Contact Dr. Lee on LinkedIn

Lieutenant Jarrett Morris began his career at the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office (California) in 2005. He has worked multiple assignments throughout his career including custody operations, patrol operations, gang investigator, narcotics investigator, coroner’s detective sergeant, K9 unit coordinator, mobile field force leader and peer support coordinator. Lieutenant Morris has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice administration from Union Institute and University. Contact Lieutenant Morris on LinkedIn and Instagram

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