Promoting positive coping strategies in law enforcement
COPS Office report outlines shortfall of departments in providing adequate mental health resources officers feel comfortable accessing
Since 2011, the COPS Office Officer Safety and Wellness (OSW) Group has worked to improve the health and well-being of the men and women of our nation’s law enforcement agencies.
In recent meetings, the group has focused on officer resilience and published a report on the discussions of the group, acknowledging that “Officers are the most valuable resources in any law enforcement agency. If they are not healthy and well, they cannot best protect and serve their communities.” The report is available in full below.
Their conclusions were not ground-breaking, but consistent with the experience of law enforcement leaders, validating the call for better training and awareness of stress and trauma-related issues.
Hampered by clear statistical evidence on the prevalence of substance abuse and suicide specific to policing, police leaders are limited to statistics about the population in general. Citing anecdotal evidence, the group expressed concern about alcohol use and recommended increased attention to a problem that various studies say affect 17%-25% of law enforcement officers.
Discussing trauma once again led to the acknowledgment of the need for more research-based data, particularly in the area of pre-existing trauma in the lives of officers prior to their exposure to duty-related primary and secondary trauma.
The group conceded that basic police training in the areas of stress and trauma need to increase brain-based science on the subject, reporting that “training of new recruits in the academy has not changed much in 40 or 50 years, with the focus more on physical than mental aspects of training.”
Availability of support resources
The most significant topic of discussion was the availability and consequences of accessing support, therapy and treatment for ongoing mental fitness.
An overarching theme focuses on barriers for officers in accessing needed services and their use of available resources.
A primary concern for the OSW Group was the shortfall of departments in providing adequate resources officers feel comfortable accessing. For this, the group’s discussion relied heavily on results from a recent survey by the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) in cooperation with NBC News. The study showed that officers have great reluctance in trusting helpers, but that peer support was the most trusted source of help.
The 2018 FOB survey of 8,000 active and retired sworn officers found 90% of those surveyed believe stigma creates a barrier to seeking therapy for emotional or behavioral health issues. The survey found that just 20% of respondents used employee assistance program (EAP) resources for professional help, and 59% of those who did use these services did not find them helpful.
The OWS group expressed concern that a lack of trust in confidentiality was a significant barrier with the EAPs, highlighting the stigma associated with seeking mental health treatment as a serious obstacle for officers in seeking help. On a positive note, the FOP study found that 73% of those surveyed viewed peer support as the most helpful treatment option.
Policy and legislation
The group cited a lack of consistent policy and legislation on the confidentiality of EAP and peer support groups, as well as the variations in mandated benefit coverage for PTSD from state to state, to be an emerging issue in establishing best practices for attending to mental health for police officers.
Group members urged top-down integration of valuing wellness, practicing skills in prevention and intervention throughout the organization, and including mental health in basic training, supervisor training, promotion exams and policy.
A final observation from the FOP study shows the work yet to be done in this area: ”Responses indicate that officers are more likely to do nothing, to suffer in silence, or resort to the use of alcohol or drugs than they are to seek professional mental health help.”